Panofsky’s Early Netherlandish Painting concludes with his assessment of the difficulties of “decoding Jerome Bosch,” stating, “We have bored a few holes through the door of the locked room; but somehow we do not seem to have discovered the key.” In Reindert Falkenburg’s brilliant book on Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, rather than a single key, the author draws on a variety of resources: most notably his deep knowledge of medieval theology, exegetical traditions, and devotional writings; plus Burgundian courtly culture, and a particularly close visual reading of the work. These form the basis for the book’s fascinating interpretation of the triptych’s iconography and for the author’s explanation of the hermeneutical tools that Bosch demanded of viewers (then and now) to understand a work deliberately designed to resist interpretation.
The book, though divided into sections, in effect consists of one long analysis. Nearly all the book is dedicated to the Garden of Earthly Delights, but Falkenburg begins (somewhat unexpectedly) with an examination of several works by Bosch followers that contain anthropomorphic and/or monstrous-shaped rock formations. He characterizes this motif as a “double” or Gestalt image – requiring an imaginative response by the viewer to see the veiled imagery. He argues that they represent the mouth of Hell, lying ominously behind the apparent landscape setting. Within many Boschian paintings, elements sprout out of this evil underworld, up into the world above, thereby refererring to Superbia, based in Hell and penetrating into earth. Falkenburg identifies fountains and rock formations in the Garden of Earthly Delights as similar Gestalt images, which provides the foundation for his overall interpretation of the triptych as an image of how hidden and cunningly the earth is subverted from below – and how alert a viewer must be to detect the presence of this evil.
Falkenburg sees the Creation scene in the left panel as another central element for his interpretation. Here God is making man in his image and likeness; for Falkenburg, a principal theme of the triptych is how it portrays man’s loss of divine likeness after the Fall. The Creation also engages with the theme of vision, another major topic that Falkenburg traces across the triptych. He argues that Adam’s wide-open eyes convey the uncorrupted nature of vision before the Fall, especially Adam’s ability to see God face to face – a power that contrasts to the fallen vision thematized by the ambiguous Gestalt images in the work, including the anthropomorphic rock formation in the right middle ground of the Creation panel. Finally, the scene also includes typology, where the crossed feet of Adam prefigure Christ’s crossed feet on the cross (as his open eyes indicating also his ability to foresee Christ’s salvific mission). In Falkenburg’s reading, typology (and para-typology) remains a leitmotif of the triptych, designed to establish parallels between the different panels – and to supply a mindset for the viewer to apply to the triptych.
According to the author, the exterior of the triptych expresses the Augustinian notion that God’s creation was defined by species, ordo, and modus, that is, with a structure that then was corrupted by evil (he notes that two Psalms quoted on the exterior were central to Augustine’s discussion of the origins of evil). The central panel visualizes a dream paradise, that is, an insomnium or false dream, which contrasts with the somnium (true visionary experience) of Adam.
The imagery of the central panel is also related to the amusements of courtly life – Philip the Good’s park at Hesdin and the entremets, entertainments at court banquets – and to the theme of courtly love, which Bosch here subverts and perverts. The analysis of the fruits in the central panel (drawing on Falkenburg’s previous research on mysticism and the imagery of love) offers a particularly compelling consideration of how “love fruit,” a traditional metaphor for amorous union, both religious and worldly, is now transformed into a hellish prison, because the fruits are products of a corrupt tree, as suggested in the mutated growths sprouting from the fountain.
For Falkenburg, the Hell panel provides the ultimate display of man’s loss of divine likeness. The Tree Man, another Gestalt form, provides a summa of man’s sinful inclinations and a speculum of Luxuria, the force that transforms man from Godlike to demonic. The musical elements within hell pervert the music at courtly banquets, as damned souls are conjoined with musical instruments in the devilish concert. The mysterious figure crucified on the harp is interpreted here as a sign of the subversion of the promise of salvation offered by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. In a particularly elegant application of the typological approach, Falkenburg relates the musical elements in Hellto the text of the Psalms quoted on the exterior, which celebrate music-making in praise of the Lord.
The final sections of the book argue, convincingly, that The Garden of Earthly Delights was designed for an audience of members of the Burgundian court. Adding to the evidence provided by the 1517 document that the triptych hung in Henry III of Nassau’s palace in Brussels – and to the author’s identification of courtly motifs within the painting – Falkenburg associates the triptych with discourse and interpretive culture evident in courtly literature, such as the Roman de la Rose. He further suggests that the work might have been commissioned by Engelbert II of Nassau specifically to educate his heir Henry III.
The book is beautifully produced, with all color plates (all but a couple are of very high quality), though without an index. It is very readable, but the richness of the interpretation makes it an intense experience. Throughout, Falkenburg entertains alternative interpretation and posits multiple layers of meaning. He never resorts to bashing other scholars, and even as he forges an astonishing array of original interpretations, he always remains appreciative of the contributions of others.
While this book will not end scholarly debate on The Garden of Earthly Delights, it will no doubt shape much of the debate to come. Future scholars will be hard pressed to match Falkenburg’s accomplishment. He shows how Bosch portrays the realm of unlikeness, created by man’s distance from God, and how Bosch requires the viewer to read through the fallen images represented in the triptych to become God-seeing like Adam. And in so doing, Falkenburg opens our eyes to a better understanding of The Garden of Earthly Delights – in the nicest way possible. He leaves us with the happy thought that our hermeneutical struggles, far from being a sign of any art historical failings, are actually intrinsic to the meaning of this triptych.
Lynn F. Jacobs
University of Arkansas