Paul Vandenbroeck has been publishing on Bosch since 1981, with his key publication on the Garden of Earthly Delights appearing in a magisterial, two-part article published in Dutch in the 1989 and 1990 volumes of the Antwerp Jaarboek. But only now is Vandenbroeck’s tremendous expertise on this topic finally available in English; happily, the translation is excellent. This book covers only the central panel of the triptych, with a book on the left panel currently in press. To some degree, the present volume seems to have been conceived as a companion volume to Vandenbroeck’s 1987 book, Jheronimus Bosch: tussen volksleven en stadscultuur, in which the author laid out his argument that Bosch was grounded in an urban, bourgeois, cultural ideology and that he incorporated elements from rural, folk culture in order to offer moral condemnation. Thus Vandenbroeck assumes, rather than repeats, his conclusions about Bosch’s class values in developing the interpretive line of the current book.
Vandenbroeck aims to explain the iconographical program of the central panel of the Garden of Earthly Delights. His methodology grounds Bosch’s work within “clouds of association, sometimes overlapping, sometimes not.” Vandenbroeck’s deep level of scholarship allows him to tackle associations between Bosch’s triptych and contextual elements as disparate as folk beliefs – an area of Bosch scholarship in which Vandenbroeck is in a class of his own – rederijker culture, devotional literature, religious commentary, poetry, and music. The book’s main claim is that the central panel of the Garden of Earthly Delights represents a false paradise; Bosch depicts and condemns the carefree, sinful behavior of the wicked, who believe themselves to have achieved a golden age and earthly paradise, but in reality enact a history of the world dominated by sexuality. Vandenbroeck’s approach thus elegantly straddles the conflict between those who interpret the panels negatively (as a depiction of the sin of lust and the fallen state of humankind), and those who interpret the panel positively (as a utopian vision of the world before – or without – the Fall). On Vandenbroeck’s view, the panel combines positive and negative elements to depict something that appears to be good (paradise), but in reality is bad (a place of indulgence in sin).
The book begins with a consideration of a medieval folk myth of a sexual utopia, that is, a paradise of love ruled by a fairy (sometimes called “Venus”) where one could indulge in sensual and sexual pleasures without inhibition. This paradise was referred to as the “Grail,” although it had other names, such as “Venusberg.” Vandenbroeck traces the differing formulations of the myth as well as the condemnation of this mythic utopia by religious figures. This chapter sets the stage for Vandenbroeck’s argument that the Garden of Earthly Delights depicts the mythical love paradise of the Grail, not in the positive way presented in secular literature, but in the negative manner of the religious moralists.
The following chapter moves from the myth of the Grail to a consideration of a related phenomenon, the utopian, late medieval heretical Sect of the Free Spirit, also known as the Adamites. The Sect of the Free Spirit aimed to recreate the paradise of life before the Fall and to that end advocated for sexual freedom; the group held free love orgies similar to those enacted in the Grail myth. Here Vandenbroeck’s analysis comes into association with the arguments of Wilhelm Fraenger, who in a 1947 book argued that Bosch was a member of the Adamites and advocated for their values in the Garden of Earthly Delights. Vandenbroeck does not address Fraenger’s ideas until later in the book, toward the end of Chapter Three, where he argues that Bosch could not have been a member of the sect because he shows no sympathy for their beliefs, such as their rejection of hell. (Fraenger’s book, probably by accident, is not included in the bibliography.) Vandenbroeck sees Bosch’s central panel as a condemnation of the associated ideas of both the Adamites and the Grail myth.
Chapter Three constitutes the bulk of the book. Here Vandenbroeck links the imagery of the painting’s central panel to six main cultural concepts, and he grounds each concept in a wealth of literary and material culture. The first, primitivism, addresses the various “wild folk” depicted in the painting, including blacks, mermaids, and sea-knights, and their link to the concept of a primordial age. While Vandenbroeck throughout is sensitive to ambiguity, he ultimately sees wildness as associated with the diabolical. The second concept, nature, considers how the interweaving of natural and artificial forms in Bosch’s landscape characterizes nature both as diabolical and as feminized/sexualized in its ongoing act of generation. A particularly interesting third section discusses the link between the primordial era and end times, with attention to whether the panel depicts the time of Noah – when humankind’s sins led God to destroy the earth in a Flood that was seen as prefiguring destruction at the end of times. Vandenbroeck concludes that the eschatological elements in the work did not derive specifically from the days of Noah theme, which, he argues, became popular only later in the sixteenth century.
The fourth theme, marriage, considers how cultural attitudes toward marriage and procreation relate to the display of sexuality enacted in the panel – especially in light of the left wing’s depiction of the “marriage” of Adam and Eve. According to Vandenbroeck, Bosch presents the idea that humankind has perverted the religious concept of chaste procreation in marriage. For the fifth theme, paradise, he addresses the critical problem that many elements depicted in the central panel appear in both positive and negative contexts elsewhere in Bosch’s oeuvre. Vandenbroeck tries to resolve the issue by linking the painting to medieval views about two paradises – one for the moderately good and one for the fully virtuous – arguing that the work shows the paradise of the moderately good, who are still indulging in earthly ways. But perhaps such ambiguities are simply how Bosch communicates the falseness of this paradise and/or uses ambiguity as a general iconographic strategy.
The last concept considered is historical time, specifically ideas about the golden age and the linkage between primordial and end times. This topic, which overlaps with some earlier material, sums up the panel’s relation to history, by reading it as depicting the sinful behavior of humankind who live at end times as they did in the days of Noah and who, falsely, see themselves as living in a golden age and paradise on earth. This chapter ends by discussing Bosch’s knowledge of the Grail myth – an issue more appropriate to Chapter One. The final section of the chapter offers a fascinating, if speculative, discussion of patronage. Vandenbroeck accepts the 1480-85 dating of the Garden of Earthly Delights, proposed by Bernard Vermet – as opposed to the 1495-1505 date proposed by the Bosch Research and Conservation Project.
Vandenbroeck also accepts the theory that the work was made for the court of Nassau (quite reasonably, given the 1517 documentation of the triptych’s presence in the Nassau palace), so the early dating allows Vandenbroeck to eliminate Henry III of Nassau as a possible patron and to focus on the case for Engelbert II, a notorious womanizer. But in the end Vandenbroeck suggests that Engelbert’s long suffering wife, Cimburga of Baden, might have commissioned the work, perhaps to admonish her husband while still appealing to his erotic interests. The fact that Cimburga owned several manuscripts containing the Grail myth makes this suggestion particularly intriguing, as does the original and unexpected possibility of female patronage. Vandenbroeck’s suggestion will surely spark a new round of discussion about the work’s patronage.
The book concludes by grounding the triptych in a wider cultural context, considering its relation to the theme of the “world upside down,” the dream, insanity, and manifestations of the irrational in music, poetry, the visual arts (drolleries), and Gothic aesthetics. This fourth chapter cements the book’s status as the most sustained treatment to date of the Garden of Earthly Delights’ central panel, interpreted in relation to cultural context, rather via the decoding of symbols (on the latter, Vandenbroeck generally follows Dirk Bax).
Despite a few production problems – a lack of figure numbers that makes it difficult to correlate text and image and an absence of illustrations for some key points made in the text – this impressive book makes a tremendous contribution, both widening and deepening our understanding of the most iconographically challenging example of Netherlandish art.
Lynn F. Jacobs
University of Arkansas