Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights

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  • 0:00 Hieronymus Bosch's Triptych
  • 0:35 Description
  • 2:45 Interpretations
  • 4:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore a complex and intricate painting by Hieronymus Bosch and examine the world of 16th-century religious painting. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Hieronymus Bosch's Triptych

Hieronymus Bosch

Say hello to Hieronymus Bosch. Hello, Hieronymus. He's a Netherlandish painter who lived and worked in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Bosch was known for painting triptychs, altarpieces with three panels. Simple enough so far, right? Okay, now here's his most famous triptych.

The Garden of Earthly Delights

Whoa. This is the Garden of Earthly Delights, a modern title given to Bosch's masterpiece triptych painted between 1490 and 1510. This is amongst the most intricate and enigmatic paintings of Western history, filled with images and symbols that have sparked debate for centuries.


Bosch's triptych is made of oak panel and oil paint and like most triptychs, the outer two wings fold in. Most triptychs were only opened on special occasions, so they had a closed view as well as an open view. This is the closed view.

The closed view of the Garden of Earthly Delights
Closed view of the triptych

It's an image of the world during the Creation. God can be seen in the upper left and the world appears in a sphere, based on a traditional depiction for the time of the newly created world as a crystal orb. The entire thing is painted in grisaille, meaning it's entirely in various shades of a single color. Many scholars think that this represents the stage of creation. There's no color because the sun and moon have not yet been created. There is simply an ephemeral light and seas, putting this at the third day of Creation.

The outside is dark and dreary, a strong contrast to this - the inside view. When the outside wings were opened, this is what we see - a massive and intricate scene of people in a vast landscape. Most triptychs were read from left to right, like a book, so we'll do the same.

The inside view
Inside view of the triptych

The left panel shows a scene from the Garden of Eden, after Eve has just been created from Adam's rib. Real and mythological creatures fill the scene, many of which were symbolic of fertility or eternal life. The center panel, the largest scene, shows dozens of nude figures, surrounded by animals, enormous fruits, and other plants. It is a paradise, but not a divine one. The figures are all engaged in simple, joyful pursuits, with the exception of a single clothed figure, who many assume was the patron of the piece.

Finally, we have the right panel, which is dramatically different. It's dark, it's scary. It's Hell. I mean literally, this is Hell, where the souls of the damned spend eternity. Fire, torture, and demons have replaced the friendly animals, large fruits, and simple joys of the center panel. The main figure is an enormous, hollow torso of a man. If that's not enough to give you nightmares… well, let's just go back to that center panel. It's much nicer.


The inside of Bosch's triptych has been the source of a considerable amount of debate. What exactly does it all mean? Like I said, most triptychs of the time were narrative, telling a story when read from left to right. If we do that, we see a scene of heavenly paradise, followed by a scene of earthly, and therefore sinful, paradise, and finally a scene of damnation. From that reading, this is a story of the price of sin. Bosch lived in a part of Europe that was still very much under the moral authority of the Church, and the nakedness of the people in the center panel could be a sign of their lust, greed, impiety, and vanity. So, it's not out of the question to assume that this triptych is showing how a life of pleasure leads to eternal damnation.

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