Recently, an unhappy person who has been living on the fringes, sent a message to her friends that the darkness was lifting. She now understands the truth about herself. She knows the source of her problems and how to overcome them. She must love herself. She deserves happiness. She is reprogramming her life, setting out on a journey to find earthly delights and ridding herself of the demons within.
Sadly, this message brought to mind a frightening picture of delights and demons in people’s lives, painted some five hundred years ago. A memory of that painting seems to have connected itself to the unhappy woman. To find that connection, one must go back in time and space to see the picture, the world in which it was created and the meaning it expressed.
The painter was Hieronymus Bosch, known in his own time as Jheronimus van Aken, or Jerome in English. He was born around 1450 and died in 1516. Little is known of his life. His father and grandfather were both painters, and the family lived in one of the main cities of the Duchy of Brabant, near a forest in which the dukes went hunting and from which the city took its Dutch name: ’s-Hertogenbosch, the Duke’s wood.
In Jerome’s day, creative imagination played more freely with the abundance and immense variety of matter and living things. Strange animals, plants and minerals could inspire wonder. Precious gems, powerful herbs and majestic lions, bulls and eagles could be offered as gifts to God and kings. Other things could inspire dread such as marshes, dark caves, sulphurous gases, toxic fungi, serpents, dragons and bats. Jerome revealed this abundant and varied creation through his art with fantastic plants, exotic animals and hybrid creatures made up of animal and human parts.
The artist left us no explanation of his works, but perhaps he shared a common vision with the recently deceased physicist Freeman Dyson who said:
When we look at the glory of stars and galaxies in the sky and the glory of forests and flowers in the living world around us, it is evident that God loves diversity. Perhaps the universe is constructed according to a principle of maximum diversity. The principle of maximum diversity says that the laws of nature, and the initial conditions at the beginning of time, are such as to make the universe as interesting as possible. 1
Dyson thought that art could reveal truths about the world, not in the manner of science, but truthfully nonetheless.
Jerome’s vision of delight and dread in human life unfolds in a work painted on three wooden panels some time between 1495 and 1505, nowadays called The Garden of Earthly Delights. The two outer panels, when shut to cover up the central panel, show the world in creation. There is light and darkness, the firmament has separated the waters from the earth, and plants are growing but the animals have yet to appear.
Opening the first panel, set in the Garden of Eden, we see the diversity of life in a peaceful setting.
God is holding Eve’s hand as He presents her to Adam, whose feet are touching the hem of God’s robe. Close to the feet of God, a three-headed bird looks towards a pond where a strange half-unicorn, half-seal is surfacing. To the left, a cat slinks off with a mouse dangling out of its mouth; to the right, a duck-billed creature appears to be reading a book. In the upper part of the picture, a plant-like structure towers above a lake. More familiar creatures — an elephant, a giraffe, a profusion of birds — live alongside a dog-like creature, and a unicorn drinks beside deer and a cow. The earthly garden contains much to interest us, without being unruly or chaotic.
The central panel shows another landscape.
God is absent. Humanity is so riotously enjoying itself that it is hard to know where to start and where to go when looking at this picture. Swarms of naked people please themselves: having sex, eating, swimming, doing acrobatics, hunting and fishing, and otherwise mingling intimately with each other, and with plants and with animals. Yet things are out of joint. Certain animals have grown larger than life. Some people are living inside luscious fruits and other vegetation, and a few are even changing into hybrid animals and plants. In the lower third of the painting, a couple is being carried towards the water in the shell of a mussel, their legs dangling out. Will the mussel close and digest them while their attention is diverted? Nearby, a bird feeds a man in a blue eggshell. Fish are everywhere on the land; people are frequently in the water. In the Biblical world, water represented chaos which was kept at bay by land and sky. Now, in disorder, the boundaries of life are breaking down, and untamed creatures are multiplying and moving into the centre of human life.
In the third panel, daylight has gone. In gloom, lit only by fire and moonlight, humanity and all its works are being destroyed.
Monsters have taken charge. At the top of the painting, fires and warfare rage through ruined buildings. Armies rampage through the darkness and countless people are swept along, naked and helpless in the blackened water. In the middle section, monsters wield giant knives and dismembered body parts. Lizard-like dogs devour a soldier. Below them, a lute, a harp and a hurdy-gurdy have turned into instruments of torture. A humanoid bird on a throne devours one man while defecating others. At the bottom right, a pig in a nun’s dress is getting a man to sign a legal document, perhaps a deed of sale for his soul.
Jerome’s three panels show first a harmonious creation living with God. Next there is a riotous scene without God, where humanity does whatever it likes with whatever it finds. People have made gods of themselves and gods of their pleasures. Animals are growing more like people and people are becoming more like animals. In the final panel, monsters have taken charge, and the remnants of humanity are torn apart in pain and death.
To modern eyes, Jerome’s vision and weird creatures seem exceptional. In his day, however, he expressed mainstream Christian belief. He was a member of an important religious confraternity. Creatures of similar strangeness existed in copies of the Bible, made by hand in the monasteries. Scripture in immaculate lettering was introduced by garlanded capitals, luxuriant illustrations and elaborate borders. In the margins, copyists brought to life the ‘marginalia’: devils, strange people, irreverent cartoons, bizarre animals and birds. It was a way of showing the proper order of the world. The Word at the centre of the manuscript showed God at the heart of all things, bringing meaning to humanity; the garlands, illustrations and borders glorified and protected the Word; and the creatures in the margins showed the quirky forms of life that did not fit together, fruit from the tree of life cut off from the tree of knowledge. 2
Today, long after Jerome’s death, strange and disoriented lives are still lived on the margins. They do not always end happily. On the way to see the 500th anniversary exhibition of Jerome’s paintings in his native town, my train was diverted from the most direct route because an unhappy person had thrown themselves onto the tracks in front of an oncoming train.
Jerome painted our world five hundred years ago. His garden of Eden represents the abundance and variety in the potential of each human life. His garden of earthly delights shows how life cut off from knowledge, mingles and multiplies without meaning. The last panel reveals the result: metastasising monsters deforming and destroying life.
Thinking now of the woman living on the fringes and her forthcoming pursuit of enjoyment, one might reflect that she is a lonely creature that could go easily astray in the garden. The Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson urges his unhappy patients to do what is meaningful, not what is expedient or merely pleasant. St Augustine, no stranger to earthly delights himself, urged us to give ourselves away to our neighbours, and to find meaning in God because ‘no-one among humankind knows what it is to be a human being…but You know everything about him because You made him’. 3
We make our choices, but as the physicist Freeman Dyson noted: “… life is possible but not too easy. Maximum diversity often leads to maximum stress. In the end we survive, but only by the skin of our teeth.” 4
One must hope that the unhappy woman survives her intended journey.
Michael Dunn is a writer, based in Sydney.
- Freeman Dyson, Templeton prize for Progress in Religion, acceptance speech ,16 May 2000, https://www.edge.org/conversation/freeman_dyson-progress-in-religion
- Jonathan Pageau,’The serpents of Orthodoxy’, Orthodox Arts Journal, April 2013, at https://orthodoxartsjournal.org/the-serpents-of-orthodoxy/
- St Augustine, Confessions, Book 10, paragraph 7, translated by Sarah Ruden, New York, 2017
- Dyson, acceptance speech, 2000