1490-1500. Grisaille, Oil on oak panel
The Garden of Earthly Delights is Bosch's most complex and enigmatic creation. For Falkenburg the overall theme of The Garden of Earthly Delights is the fate of humanity, as in The Haywain, although Bosch visualizes this concept very differently and in a much more explicit manner in the centre panel of that triptych than in The Garden of Earthly Delights. In order to analyse the work's meaning the content of each panel must be identified. On the outer faces of the triptych Bosch depicted in grisaille the Third Day of the Creation of the World, when the waters were separated from the earth and the earthly Paradise (Eden) created. At the top left we see God the Father as the Creator, according to two Latin inscriptions, one on each panel: For he spake, and it was done and For he commanded, and they were created (Psalms 33:9 and 148:5). On the inner face of the triptych, painted in brilliant colours which contrast with the grisaille, Bosch painted three scenes that share the single common denominator of the concept of sin, which starts in Paradise or Eden on the left panel, with Adam and Eve, and is punished in Hell in the right panel. The centre panel depicts a Paradise that deceives the senses, a false Paradise given over to the sin of lust. This deception is encouraged by the fact that the centre panel is shown as a continuation of Eden through the use of a single, continuous landscape with a high horizon line that allows for a broad, panoramic composition arranged as three superimposed planes, in the panels of the earthly Paradise, the Garden of Earthly Delights and Hell.
While sin is the connecting link between the three scenes, the iconography in the Paradise panel requires further analysis in order fully to appreciate its meaning. As will be noted below in the analysis of the technical documentation, when he initially embarked on the work Bosch included the Creation of Eve on the left panel, but in a second phase he replaced it with God presenting Eve to Adam. This very uncommon subject was associated with the institution of marriage, as Falkenburg and Vandenbroeck discuss (Bosch, 2016). For the latter, the centre panel represents the false paradise of love, known as Grail in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, which implied a carnal interpretation of God's mandate to Be fruitful and multiply, as instituted in marriage. The men and women that Bosch depicts in the Garden of Earthly Delights believe they are inhabiting a paradise for lovers, but this is false and their only fate is punishment in Hell. The extremely pessimistic message that the centre panel conveys is that of the fragility and ephemeral nature of happiness and delight in these sinful pleasures.
In the centre panel, from which the triptych derives its name, Bosch included a large number of naked human figures, with the exception of the pair at the lower right, who are usually identified as Adam and Eve after the Expulsion from Paradise. Men and women, both black and white, are generally seen in groups or pairs, maintaining amorous relations (some of a forbidden nature) with a powerful erotic charge that refers to the panel's pre-eminent theme, the sin of lust. The animals, both real and imaginary, are much larger than their proper scale. Among them, Bosch particularly emphasizes two different types of owl that evoke evil. Staring straight out, they direct their disturbing gazes at the viewer at the two lateral edges of the panel, slightly set back from the immediate foreground. Also present are plants and fruit, which are again much larger than their scale dimensions. The entire composition is dotted with pieces of red fruit that contrast with other large and small blue ones, these being the two principal colours in the scene. In contrast to the apparent confusion that prevails in the foreground, geometry imposes itself in the middle ground and background. In the former, Bosch depicted a pool full of naked women. Around it, in an anti-clockwise direction, rides a group of men on different mounts (some of them exotic or imaginary), who have been associated with different Cardinal Sins. In the background of the scene Bosch included five fantastical architectural constructions in the water, the central one similar to the fountain of the Four Rivers in the Paradise panel, although here broken to symbolize its fragility and the ephemeral nature of the delights being enjoyed by the men and women who fill this garden. And now the owl depicted inside the fountain in the Paradise panel is replaced here by human figures in sexually explicit poses.
The right panel depicts Hell and is Bosch's most striking representation of this subject, on occasions referred to as the musical Hell owing to the significant presence of instruments used to torture sinners who have devoted their time to secular music. In his text in the present catalogue Larry Silver describes the punishments meted out to each sin. While lust prevails in the centre panel, in the scene of Hell all the Cardinal Sins are punished. A good example is the punishment of the avaricious, who are devoured and immediately expelled from the anus of a theriomorphic creature with a bird's head (a variety of owl) seated on a type of child's lavatory stool. Gluttons and the sin of gluttony are undoubtedly referred to in the tavern scene located inside the tree-man, in which semi-naked people seated at a table wait to be served toads and other unpleasant creatures by devils, while the envious are tortured by immersion in frozen water. Further punishments correspond to vices censured by society at the time, including board games, while particular social classes are also singled out, including the clergy, who were notably criticized at this period, as reflected in the pig wearing a nun's veil embracing a naked man in the lower right corner.
Although the triptych in the Museo del Prado is not signed, its attribution to Bosch has never been doubted. Its dating, however, is the subject of considerable debate. The results of the dendrochronological analyses could allow it to be located within the early years of the artist's activity, around 1480-85, as Vermet stated without any supporting evidence. However, the work's stylistic proximity to the Adoration of the Magi Triptych in the Prado (P02048), which can be securely dated to 1494 following Duquenne's identification in 2004 of the donors, Peeter Scheyfve and Agneese de Gramme from Antwerp, confirms that the present work must have been painted in the 1490s and not after 1505, as most authors preferred to believe prior to Duquenne's discovery. It has recently been argued that it must have been painted in or after 1494 as the image of God the Father creating the world on the reverse of the triptych is inspired by a print by Michel Wolgemut of the same subject "including the same text from the Psalms as appears on the wings" which appeared in Hartman Schedelsche Weltchronik published in Nuremberg in 1493.
Research undertaken in 1967 by Gombrich and Steppe allowed The Garden of Earthly Delights to be associated with the Nassau family. An account by Antonio de Beatis, who accompanied Cardinal Luis de Aragon as his secretary on his trip to the Low Countries, states that on 30 July 1517 the triptych was in the Nassau palace of Coudenberg in Brussels, where De Beatis presumably saw it. Since in the late 1960s the painting was considered to be a late work by Bosch, executed after the death of Engelbert's II of Nassau in 1504, it was therefore thought that the patron was Henry III of Nassau (1483-1538), Engelbert nephew and heir. In the present day and in the light of the information that locates the triptych in the 1490s, it can be confirmed that it was commissioned from Bosch by Engelbert, who must have intended it for the Coudenberg Palace (Text drawn from Silva, P.: Bosch. The 5th Centenary Exhibition, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2016, pp. 330-346).