Unpacking a Masterpiece
Visitors to the Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain, will invariably stop in their tracks when they enter the gallery. Many stand affixed to their original point of entrance, eventually inching closer to the painting that has captured them. In the time they have, they try to scrutinize every minute detail of the masterpiece. It is a futile task, for there is far too much to take in with a single examination. They are looking at what many consider to be the world’s most mysterious painting. Its title is The Garden of Earthly Delights. The artist is Hieronymus Bosch.
Bosch’s masterwork, believed to have been created somewhere between 1490 and 1510, is a triptych. It’s three separate paintings connected with a common theme. The panel on the left depicts Christ in the Garden of Eden, speaking to Adam and Eve, gently holding Eve’s hand as he gives the original pair instruction. Notice, however, that Christ is not looking at Eve. Rather, he looks directly at us! This device means that the messages apply to the viewer.
The largest part of the work, the central panel, consists of hundreds of figures involved in various activities—most of which are a mystery. The most eye-catching of all is the panel on the right, which many translate as a vision of hell. This panel depicts pure chaos and confusion, including a man impaled to a slab with a knife through his hand, a woman with a single die on her head, a gigantic rabbit carrying a halberd, another man impaled on the strings of a harp, and inexplicable egg-shaped structures resting in a frozen river complete with ice-skating imps. Finally, this atrocious vision is crowned with a city on fire. It has an uncanny kinship to future sites of destruction, like Dresden during the Second World War. Imagine the inclusion of search lights scanning for enemy bombers.
Steven J. Rolfes