• Jake Kendall

Hieronymus Bosch and the Orgy of the Damned

This article was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural.


Jake Kendall takes a deep dive into the darkest corners of Hieronymus Bosch’s orgiastic, frenzied Garden of Earthly Delights and explores its complex world of innocence, sin, sex, and interlocking gazes.

Hieronymus Bosch Garden of Earthly Delights
Illustration: The Pittsburgher

The exterior panels of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights depicts the Earth as a pallid polytonal, grey-green, globe. This is the third ‘day’ of creation, according to classic Christian Theology. The brief state in which land, seas, plants, and trees had all been brought into being, but before the sun and moon, and before the first animals.

Next to the globe, in the left-top corner of the image sits God, wearing a crown. Beside him, a quote from Psalm 33: Ipse dixit, et facta sunt: ipse mandāvit, et creāta sunt — ‘For he spake and it was done; he commanded, and it stood fast.’

The complete image of the exterior panel is serene, quiet, and harmonious, as if creatio ex nihilo was itself a purely cerebral endeavour, an act barely more exerting to God than watching a loading bar is for us.

When the panels are opened, the viewer is treated to one of the busiest, noisiest, most disharmonious paintings in all of art. It is colourful, imaginative, humorous, and disturbing, all at once. It appears to be the Christian ascetic critique of pleasure depicted in a cavalcade of giggling sin. It is a writhing mass of lascivious naked flesh, phallic fountains and ripe fruit. It is a tree man, hollowed out and used for a tavern, skating on the waters with boats on his feet, his organs like a bagpipe on top of his head. It is a bird-daemon sat on a highchair, shitting sinners into a pit of despair. In other words, it is a lot to unpack, and hard to know exactly where to begin.

The Garden of Earthly Delights is a triptych, a work that traditionally tells a story across three images. We should, therefore, begin with the left panel.

The left panel is, at first glance, the least dramatic. The foreground is dominated by three figures: Adam, Eve, and Christ. This panel has been called The Joining of Adam and Eve, and it is clear to see why: Adam and Eve are arranged in a way that recalls marriage portraits such as Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, with God, in the form of Christ, between them acting as the couple’s spiritual consecrate. However, this image is not so straightforward, it is riddled with deep, and richly rewarding, levels of ambiguity and completes a fascinating act of staging that could offer one reading of the entire work.

Before we examine the joining of Adam and Eve, we should look above them. Here we can see that the left panel is dominated by a large fountain. At the fountain’s heart, we can see the face of a Grey Night Owl.

Owls have long been a symbol of wisdom in Western art. We might then assume that Bosch’s placement of the creature in the centre of the panel might suggest that God’s wisdom has transferred over to his creation and that wisdom resides at the heart of life. Yet clearly the panels to the right suggest that it is folly, vanity, and debauchery that rule the human heart. Taking a closer look at the owl in panel one, we can see that Bosch has used a sub-species that was infamous, and much maligned, in his times. The Grey Night Owl is a diurnal bird, making it seemingly unnatural from a certain perspective, acting as it does against both the general type of the wider species, and making its own name somewhat inappropriate. It also has an interesting hunting technique of luring other birds and catching its unexpecting prey by means of entrapment. Lingering on its home, we can also see that although this fountain mainly resembles a flower, it would not take Sigmund Freud to read this image of a virile pink erection some other way. In this context, this Grey Night Owl seems to subvert our symbolic expectations, standing not for wisdom, but for entrapment, for sexual temptation, and by extension, for Satan himself.


The owl gazes down towards the reclining form of the first man, who refracts temptation admiringly up towards the naked Eve. The first woman does not meet it, instead casting her eyes down her own body, and further still. Following Eve’s gaze, we can see a pool of dark primordial water, from which we can see strange and sinister creatures emerging. Among them, carnivorous creatures that are already preying upon things weaker and smaller than themselves. Further study of the panel presents Eden itself as a place that is not totally paradisiacal. The flowers and plants are barbed and spikey, and the dynamic of predator-prey reoccurs sufficiently so that viewers are reminded constantly that violence is an inescapable aspect of an un-idyllic nature. A strange formation of rocks midway up the panel’s right-hand side have been compared in appearance to the Golgotha Rock; from it, a serpent descends. Jesus Christ looks out of the panel to directly address the viewer, his expression uncertain. The owl is positioned directly above him in the geometric centre of the panel. The hole that the bird emerges from is round and dark, recasting the bird as the grey pupil of a dark and sinister oculus. This completes not only a two-fold gaze at the centre of the panel between the owl and Adam and the oculus and the viewer, but also an additional two-fold viewer-address from both God and Satan. We can perhaps read this as a comment on the duality of the human soul and the twin drives of vice and virtue.

We can also follow the gaze of Adam beyond Eve and into the central panel. Here we find a second couple that look very much like Adam and Eve. The duplicates are frolicking waist-deep in the river and pursued by a bizarre troupe of monstrously sized bird creatures. Below this, a third coupling that also resembles Adam and Eve are found ensconced together inside a bubble, on top of an egg, with a human inside it and a large, pink and curved protruding bloom, complete with a bulbous tip. Between the two sets of replicants, other humans also express the joys of spring, cavorting joyfully, gargling water, eating berries or hoisting them onto their gentiles.

Reading left to right; we find a foreground littered with other fruit eaters, egg and flower wearers, bodies on top of other bodies, and the limbs of concealed figures jutting suggestively from enclosed spaces. The imagery is ripe with insinuation; this is a species lost to indulgences of all manner of pleasures. The scene is heavy with implicit sexual hedonism and experimentation; it is orgiastic, a group of people consume a large berry together, one man is inserting flowers into the proffered anus of another, and animals mingle with the rutting humans.

Above the river, naked women bathe together, ringed by a host of men mounted onto the backs of beasts. The scene recalls the folk traditions of the Maypole, the circular revolutions that are meant to recall and celebrate both sex and fertility. Strange figures flank this middle section. One snouted creature, that appears to be composed of bones, sticks, and writhing human bodies, occupies the left. On the right, the hollow shell of an arthropod is paraded towards the lake; on top is situated a cat - or perhaps a small canine - looking as if it believes things are getting a little out of hand, while inside a trio of bruised anuses seem offered to the world.

The top third of the central panel recalls the fountain of the first panel. However, now there are multiple constructions in the water; they are oddly shaped, ramshackle things that seem inorganic and perverse, as if the Eden has been remade by creatures who do not quite know what they are doing. Around them more humans play with fruit, eggs, and creatures. While finally, the fountain itself has been changed - it is now blue, its lines are more austere, there are cracks in the façade. Humans seem to be fornicating both on top of , and also inside, the edifice, as we can see by peeking inside the equivalent hole from which Satan, in owl form, had previously watched man.

The image is loud and joyful, though clearly excessive. We can deduce the main thrust of the imagery too of course; fruit is a long-standing visual metaphor for pleasing flesh and physical ripeness. The egg is associated with fertility and reproduction, though the cracked and discarded shells can also be understood as alluding to wastefulness and uselessness. Likely the many animals that seem to observe and interact with the humans are not meant to be considered sexual participants, but as a return of the theme of duality. In this case, the capacious bestiality that lives within God’s children.

Returning to the gaze of Adam in the left panel, we can also follow it to its conclusion in the right. In the final panel, his gaze meets another self-duplicate, this time a giant hollow tree man who turns his mournful head, out from hell, to meet the gaze of the viewer. We will, of course, return to this.

Hieronymus Bosch has become one of the principal artists that our minds go to when we think of hell. In this work, as in his other brilliant triptychs, hell is richly imagined through a sequence of bizarre and iconic images. The sinners of this work are punished through flame and torture, they are fed to animals, and they are strapped to giant musical instruments – an irony if music is taken as a symbol of pleasure. There are more fantastic images yet, images such as a giant pair of ears with a knife between them, a woman trapped by some rectal-mirror daemon who forces her to spend eternity with her reflection, and the bird on the highchair like some form of judge, consuming and excreting the guilty.

In some ways then, The Garden of Earthly Delights is typical of Medieval triptych paintings, including others painted by Hieronymus Bosch himself. However, the ways in which it differs are very interesting. Looking at both The Last Judgement and The Haywain, we can see some key divergences. Firstly, God presides over these triptychs, occupying the heavens in a way that he does not in The Garden of Earthly Delights. A second divergence is the notion of the causal vector. Our act of reading the triptych left to right imposes a sense of linearity that, explicitly or implicitly, transforms the three panels into something like a three-act narrative structure. However, the sense of cause and effect is far less obvious in The Garden of Earthly Delights than in other triptychs by Bosch. The scene of damnation depicted in the third panel does not behave in the same way as the equivalent scenes of The Last Judgement where trespasses and vices are directly recalled and punished ironically. Neither does it behave in the same manner as The Haywain, where we follow the fluid and clear progression of the characters through the panels on their journey towards damnation.

These two differences make The Garden of Earthly Delights one of the most interesting and beguiling works in all Medieval Art. To understand why, we shall return to, and finish on, the interlocking focuses of panel one.

Some critics have seen shame in Eve’s inability to meet Adam’s eyes, and her subsequent downward gaze. Others have seen seduction and invitation. The creatures below are being birthed into the world, and they are odd and flawed creations. Satan observes Adam knowingly, aware that sexual desire is the greatest form of entrapment that could ever be devised. Adam completes temptation by looking at Eve. In doing so, his desire instantaneously creates everything beyond his gaze, the sexual revelry and excesses of panel two, along with the damnation of panel three, where his gaze concludes with an image of himself, lost entirely to temptation, and firmly within the devil’s domain.

Perhaps ultimately then, the scene is shown almost from the omniscient perspective of God Himself, his timeless knowledge of his creation allowing for us this fantastic and sempiternal depiction of the human condition. It is of course an understanding of the human spirit observed through a prism of Christian Ideology, one that recasts the biological functions of our species as the original sin. God may not sit in direct judgement of humanity in this work, but in the face of Bosch’s richly imagined scenes of gratuity and damnation, we can perhaps forgive our creator his expression of uncertain misgivings. ▲ Jake Kendall has just finished his Creative Writing MSc at the University of Edinburgh, and is dreading the return to normal life. You can follow him @jakendallox.