Of all the great paintings in Madrid’s Museo Nacional del Prado, the one that possibly attracts the most visitors is Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of earthly delights”.
It is a large triptych – over 213 cm (seven feet) high and 365 cm (12 feet) wide – but you have to stand as close to the canvas as permits to examine the detailed figures and scenes and then move back a little to try and grasp some sense of the whole.
There is, as Carroll says in an instructive new book about the painting, a broad sequence at work in the triptych. When the shutters of the three panels are closed, God is depicted creating the cosmos; open them and earth history is displayed: from the Garden of Eden on the left to the end of the world on the right.
Such a familiar trajectory tells us little and Carroll looks instead at what Bosch might be saying about the passage of time ‘and how humans might have felt and behaved before and after the encroachment of civilization’.
Technical advances – infrared reflectograms and X-rays – reveal the painter of “Garden of earthly delights” to be a restless artist, improvising as he worked, dispensing in places with underdrawing in favour of directly applying paint to the surface of the canvas. He was thinking as he painted.
The strength of this book lies in its wealth of reproductions, for every page has images showing detailed sections of the panels and the triptych’s shutters.
There is only so long you can stand and stare at them in the Prado, head straining forwards to pick out fine details while other visitors wait to take your place. Having them on a page to gaze at and examine is an aesthetic luxury.
High-resolution images are available online from the Bosch Research and Conservation Project and there is also a useful app, Second Canvas Museo del Prado, but Carroll’s book provides commentary and interpretation at a granular level.
A key chapter focuses on the landscapes of the panels, replacing a common opinion that it depicts signs of ‘satanic infestation’ with a view that it conveys the marvelousness of creatures and plants that existed when the earth was young.
The left and center panels, exuberantly expressing primordial existence and the impulses that would give rise to civilization, show Bosch exploring human and non-human natures, forms of sociability and sexuality.
The imagery in the right panel, ‘an apocalyptic spectacle’ and ‘a fractured image of contemporary life around 1500’, is read as a political trope that allowed for criticisms of secular power without risking explicit attacks on the rich and powerful.
Carroll does not read Bosch as a purveyor of the bizarre or a religiously-fuelled idealist descrying human corruption and the work of the devil. Instead, she adeptly situates him as a humanist artist giving expression to new ways of thinking about the human world in its natural and political modes of being.
“Hieronyymus Bosch: time and transformation in the garden of earthly delights”, by Margaret D. Carroll, is published by Yale University Press.