The Garden of Earthly Delights & the Surreal

I first made acquaintance with Hieronymus Bosch (‘Jerome’, 1450-1516)  in 2012 at the National Gallery in Ottawa (when it was still free). The painting was ‘Funnel Butt’ – that is, The Temptations of St Anthony, to which my friend Emily directed me (after we had seen a bewildering array of St Jeromes):

Funnel butt:

Things often come from Boschian butts -- funnels, flowers, arrows, etcAnd so began a love that runs deeply and fervently to this day.

While I was in El Escorial, Spain, a couple of weeks ago, I was flipping through my Madrid guidebook, saying to myself, ‘Now, maybe I’ll stay in Escorial until the library closes at 2:00 on Saturday and skip the Prado, going straight to the airport.’ And then I discovered that the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, is home to The Garden of Earthly Delights – the greatest Bosch monsterpiece of them all.

There was no way anyone was going to lock me up with manuscripts of Collectio Hispana on Saturday. I would finish my work Friday. It was imperative.

And I did. Not only that, however, I finished early on Friday, so I took the tourist tour of the Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial.

The first section of this tour was tapestries – like most such Late Mediaeval and Early Modern items I’ve met, these were produced in Flanders or the Netherlands for the most part. In the second room you’ll find some remarkable work, as good as any Early Renaissance painting. In the first room? Four Bosch tapestries! The Garden of Earthly Delights, the Haywain, the Temptations of St Antony, and a St Martin one.

So my touristing in Spain was off to a good start – a Garden of Earthly Delights tapestry and a Temptations of Saint Anthony tapestry. Who could ask for better? It was clear that I was destined to see the real thing.

So, on the Saturday I left Spain, I saw it. It was the first thing I did after entering the Prado (second, actually; nature calls).

What can be said about The Garden of Earthly Delights?

Look at it.

First of all, ‘the Garden of Earthly Delights’ is really only the centre panel of this Late Mediaeval kaleidoscope of wonders. The left panel is Paradise, the right panel Hell.

As I observed Hell that day, in particular the man-turned-architecture pictured below, the word that came to my mind was Surreal.

And I do not use the word lightly, as so many do these days. I use the word with actual Surrealists in mind; indeed, the definition of surreal in the OED is:

Having the qualities of surrealist art; bizarre, dreamlike.

The most famous Surrealist is Salvador Dali. Is Dali not Boschian in some respects?

I am not the first person to acknowledge this similarity, of course. Here is a good article about the dreamlike and nightmarish aspects of Bosch’s art, putting him fort as the first Surrealist.

When we consider The Garden of Earthly Delights, perhaps the subject matter must, of necessity, come from the realm of dreams? Paradise from deep in the collective unconscious of where we have come, where we long to be, Hell from our great fears of the Final Judgement and where we long never to be. And that central panel, whence comes the name, is the world of our own bizarre, carnal lusts, hidden deep in the psyche, in the hippocampus, in the world where Greek mythology blends with human history and nightmare and zoology in an insane revelry for the senses.

The Surreal Hieronymus, painting from the depths of the sub/unconscious human soul.

Of course, I mostly just delight in it because it’s so weird.

Like flower butt:


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