Is This What Hell Looks Like?

A 500-year-old warning...

Read time: 6 minutes

The gap between medieval and modern art might seem unbridgeable. But there is one painting that connects the two — and it’s as strange as you might expect.

Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights is more than a visual masterpiece. It holds the keys to some big questions:

  • How did art go from the Pietà to The Persistence of Memory?

  • How can there be beauty in horror?

  • What is hell like?

Above all, it’s a 500-year-old warning about sin…

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A Mystery From a Mystery

The pristine surface is a shocking contrast to what’s beneath…

Hieronymus Bosch is a historical enigma. This early Dutch Renaissance master left few details about his life, no personal writings, and no hints about what motivated his darkly fantastical paintings. 

The Garden of Earthly Delights is unquestionably his most famous work, but it’s even more enigmatic than its artist.

As a triptych altarpiece — i.e., a three-panel painting that folds like a book — Bosch meant it to be a vision of the whole world. He drives this home by adorning the outside with a globe that shows the third day of creation.

Once opened, it reads like a book from left to right. On the left panel, Adam and Eve meet for the first time in the Garden of Eden. In the center, innumerable human figures cavort in the Garden of Earthly Delights. And on the right, the story ends with tortured souls enduring agony in Hell. 

If this sounds like a straightforwardly moralistic painting, think again. Each panel looks like something from a nightmare-inducing hallucination.

Let’s break down each of them in turn.

The Garden of Eden

You might guess that a painting of humanity’s descent into hedonism would begin with Eve taking her fateful bite of the forbidden fruit, but Bosch takes a deceptively peaceful direction.

The first panel depicts Adam in the Garden of Eden as God presents him with the first woman, Eve. The scenery seems peaceful; in the background, animals (especially ones associated with fertility) roam an idyllic landscape. The theme is romantic love, blessed by God.

However, some disturbing hints foreshadow what’s to come. A three-headed lizard crawls out of the main pond, hinting at the presence of the Serpent. A pink statue appears to take the form of a sinister face — perhaps a surrealist depiction of Satan. 

Even Adam’s rosy cheeks are a sign of trouble ahead, as blushing was considered a sign of arousal and lust. Man’s lustful response to woman will come to fruition in the next panel. 

The Garden of Earthly Delights

The central panel explodes with nude figures. It’s a chaotic realm of animals, people, and plants, all intertwining in bizarre, disturbing ways. God, you’ll notice, is no longer present.

Since this panel is also set in a garden, it’s easy to mistake it for a continuation of Eden, but Bosch is manipulating the viewer’s confusion to make a point.

Even though Eden was a pristine paradise in the Biblical realm, in medieval art, gardens came to represent lovers and illicit sexuality. Bosch makes a point to reveal how easy it is to mistake earthly pleasures for heavenly joy.

A multitude of sexual symbols — from fruit to flowers to animals — abound, and take on bizarre manifestations. Some figures are trapped inside water bubbles caressing delicious fruits. One figure places a bouquet between another’s buttocks. Others chase each other while riding on the backs of various animals. And that just scratches the surface of their imaginative antics.

This panel has the feeling of walking into a crowded arcade: with so many enticements vying for your attention, you’re easily bewildered and don’t know where to look. 

The imagery is almost all sexual, but it’s shorthand for all the types of gratification that human beings chase. Bosch’s vision leaves you sickened at the obscene indulgence of lust, gluttony, and every other human appetite, yet it’s hard to look away… 

Hell

The right panel shows Bosch’s vision of where unbridled self-indulgence leads: a hell unlike any you’ve seen before.

Instead of devils with pitchforks, everyday items like musical instruments become instruments of torture. Disgusting monsters operate nameless, mechanical torture devices, and some of the damned are crushed under a gigantic pair of ears.

It’s a scene of horror that defies description, and its horror rests largely on the fact that normal objects have been nightmarishly perverted to become the focal points of hell. 

There is one element of logic in this surrealist world of torture: some of the damned suffer torments that fit their earthly sins. For example, a glutton is forced to vomit into a pit, and a vain woman stares at her reflection while devilish hands grab at her. 

It’s precisely because Bosch leaves out the standard symbols of hellish punishment that his realm of the damned is so horrifying — it’s as if damnation means that logic itself begins to dissolve into insanity. 

And there’s one big message woven in: all the horror is man-made.

That is evident in a strikingly literal sense: the organic-looking structures of previous panels are gone, and everything is now decidedly man-made. All the creations of man, even the musical instruments, have turned on him.

Humanity’s man-made hell

What Does It All Mean?

The strangest thing about this painting is when it was made.

It wasn’t created in the 20th century, nor during an era of absurdism or nihilism. It was painted within years of Da Vinci’s Last Supper — ie., during the height of the Renaissance. 

The Garden of Earthly Delights clearly trespasses the Renaissance’s core theme of humanism. Instead of celebrating man’s potential, Bosch displays the downward spiral that humanity’s undisciplined passions create.

That’s not to say that Bosch was a rule-bound moralist. Yes, religious paintings were the accepted genre of his time, but Garden is unlike any moral artwork yet seen. Its sheer weirdness and horror set it apart.

The key to the painting, though, is that it’s actually not as much a departure from traditional Christian art as it seems.

Garden’s grotesque nature takes its inspiration from medieval gargoyles. These monstrous figures traditionally perched on the outer walls of churches, adding a counterpoint of ugliness and disorder to an otherwise immaculately designed cathedral. They were often lewd, confusing, and downright disturbing — exactly like Garden.

Scholarly opinion has never fully settled whether Bosch was a fervent Christian believer or an intentional critic of organized religion.

Perhaps he was something else entirely — a thinker whom the artistic norms of his day couldn’t contain, who presented the nightmares of his imagination with an ironic relationship to his faith.

The Gargoyles that Guard

Bosch’s unsettling triptych makes the connection between medieval and modern art.

Medieval art used gargoyles to make a statement: if you don’t live your life in harmony with the beauty and order that built the great cathedrals, you’ll fall into a life of ugliness and chaos. The gargoyles gave us a taste of that ugliness.

As repulsive as The Garden of Earthly Delights is, its horrors serve a similarly indispensable purpose: they clear our vision so we can see the ugliness of self-gratification.

The end of Bosch’s story is rendered in such horrifying detail that only a true visionary could imagine — so that we might choose another ending before it’s too late.

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Art of the Week

As a reprieve from Bosch’s challenging semi-religious art, let’s take a look at arguably the greatest religious painting of them all: the Sinai Pantocrator. You’ve probably seen this before…

Christ Pantocrator (Sinai), Artist unknown, 6th century

The word “Pantocrator” translates to “ruler of all” or “all-powerful.” This genre of religious icons depicts the victorious Christ seated in Heaven, having ascended to rule at the Father’s right hand.

The Pantocrator image is so central to Byzantine theology that almost every church has one dominating the central dome. All Pantocrator icons look similar, but the Sinai Pantocrator is the most enduring.

Created by an unknown monk in a monastery on Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, the Sinai Pantocrator icon immediately arrests you with the power of Christ’s gaze.

Soon, though, you begin to notice curious details beneath the harmony…

The figure’s face appears to be divided into two distinct sides. The right side of Christ, (the left from the viewer’s perspective) is lighter and more open, and Christ’s right hand is raised to bless the viewer. This side evokes the loving gentleness of Jesus, associated in the Bible with the title of Good Shepherd. 

The left side is darker and more stern. Christ’s left hand holds a book, which simultaneously represents the books of the Gospels, the book in which all the deeds of men are written, and the Book of Life, which records the names of the saved. This side manifests Christ as Judge, the intimidating figure who will evaluate every person’s life at the end of time.

The two sides are so different that, when each one is extended into a full painting, they look completely different. Yet the icon brings them together in a harmonious whole:

It captures a core struggle of Christianity: how can you understand Christ as both God and man?

How can one relate to him both as a gentle Shepherd and an uncompromising Judge?

By bringing the duality together in one harmonious painting, the anonymous artist gave a wordless answer to the mystery. As is typical of icons, there’s no lesson here that can be captured in words — just an eternally compelling image that invites our contemplation.

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