Hieronymus Bosch painted his ever-intriguing triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights in or about the year 1504 -- on a cusp of history (click to enlarge). The Middle Ages are ending. Modernity is being born, most dramatically in the Italian Renaissance. Orthodoxy butts head with adventure, dogma with curiosity. The printing press has been invented. Luther will soon nail his theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Copernicus is thirty-one years old.
The city of Florence has recently experienced a last gasp of theological repression with the brief ascendancy of the priest Savonarola, who railed against preoccupation with earthly delights. His bonfire of the vanities consumed mirrors, fine clothing, secular books, musical instruments and the equipment of gaming, perhaps even paintings by such masters as Michelangelo and Botticelli. It was not to last. In 1497, the people, especially the young, revolted, danced in the streets, reopened the taverns, threw wide the doors of their souls to an increasingly secular future. Michelangelo's monumental nude David can be taken as a symbol of a new immersion in the natural order, a new embrace of las delicias.
All of this can be seen working itself out in Bosch's Flemish masterpiece. In the left-hand panel Adam and Eve are blessedly -- and nakedly -- at peace in Eden, in a state of innocence, before the Original Sin (although the lion does not quite lie down with the lamb). In the right-hand panel is the ultimate bonfire of the vanities, a vision of Hell more terrifying than any sermon of Savonarola. And in the central panel, men and women nakedly cavort, indulging themselves in every sort of sensual pleasure, much like the beautiful young people in the streets and bedchambers of Florence once Savonarola had been toppled from influence, and for which, in the traditional interpretation of the painting, they will pay a horrific price in the nightmarish Hades to their right.
Anyone who has seen Bosch's painting, even in reproduction (the original is in the Prado in Madrid), will not have forgotten it. It is one of those works which mirror our souls, in which we see our own dreams and nightmares. Over the next few days I will reflect at length on each panel separately, from a purely personal perspective. In doing so, I am mindful that a much-admired colleague in the nature-writing community, Terry Tempest Williams, spent seven years looking at her own soul in Bosch's mirror, and reported what she found in a remarkable book, Leap. It has been some years since I read Leap; in any case, there is unlikely to be much overlap in our responses.