Written by Jonathan Wojcik
October 27: Things from Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights!
Things from Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights!
For our third and final look at Bosch's monsters this October, we dive into his single most iconic piece, the "Hell" panel of his three-panel The Garden of Earthly Delights, which, with a good enough computer, you can view online in staggeringly high resolution. This is the painting Bosch's name is immediately linked with and widely regarded as his master work, his Mona Lisa.
The Ear Machine
While I always interpreted this as some kind of vehicle, it's just as likely a huge demon in its own right, consistenting of nothing but a giant knife and giant ears. It wouldn't even be the strangest devil we've seen, after all. It seems to be crushing human souls under its lobes, but just how exactly does it get around? Do the ears roll like wheels, or do they walk around like giant feet? Pondering these things at face value is a whole lot more fun than just writing it all off as surrealism alone.
Yes, this giant boat-footed, tree-legged egg man is Bosch's own self-portrait, looking fairly pleased to have a wild party in his shattered body cavity. Particularly weird to me is that flag, which boasts a picture of the same musical bladder-thing atop Bosch's head.
The largest and most prominent of all Bosch's bird-headed devils is commonly interpreted as devil himself, and I have to say it really would be my choice for the most appropriately unsettling devil of any cultural interpretation I can think of. The huge, bird head looks almost sorrowful as it gulps down a human soul, strange black birds fleeing from the poor sap's anus. How do you know that wouldn't be exactly what happens when your soul is swallowed by the devil? "Fortunately," Lucifer's meals survive digestion whole, oozing out into...what is that? Some sort of septic tank? A giant prolapsed demon-rectum? Ugh. We can probably assume that these souls don't come out of Satan's distended cloaca normal.
Lurking beneath Satan's robes, the mirror-butt-face monster is interesting enough, but I think the shadowy, long-eared entity, with its beady white eyes and spindly frog-hands, is nothing short of terrifying. The mind boggles at what could be going on here, but we know it can't be anything pleasant for the woman, seeing as she's in hell. At least she gets a fashionable chest-frog.
One of my favorite details in the painting is also one of its smallest. Tucked behind the devil's septic system is this fellow with a black, staring frog right at crotch-level, but whatever they're doing, he just doesn't seem into it tonight. I guess that's his eternal punishment; a relationship with an affectionate giant toad that just gets really old, really fast.
Hey, another demon bird with ice skates! And this one really is adorable, but why does it even have a bow and arrow? You don't have any arms, silly!
What else are you going to call these things? These wretched beasts stand out more for how normal they are compared to everything else in hell. Not "boring" normal, just biologically feasible normal. They're like giant, hairless pack-hunting Opossums.
Bosch's creepy critters aren't restricted to the underworld; this pond full of peculiar fauna - and some sort of nun-duck-fish - lies clear across the Triptych in the "heaven" panel, strangely enough. Cute little froggies get eaten by saucer-beaked birds in "heaven?" Weird.
The Flying Merman
Likewise, this otherworldly, helmeted fish-man dwells in the central panel, the "Garden of Earthly Delights" itself. He flies alone on his winged fish, but there are hordes of helmeted merpeople just like him in the same scene, hunting other fish with the same mysterious, giant berries
Helmeted Bird Monster
At last, I give you my very favorite entity of Bosch's entire artistic career. I don't know why it's my favorite, exactly, but there's not a single detail I don't find charming; the creepy, clawed baby legs, the severed foot tied to its horn, the arrow in its ass, and the sheer absurdity of the huge, sinister helmet housing that tiny black bird-head. His eagerness to get that guy's signature is just adorable, apparently assisted in his unknown business endeavors by an overly-affectionate pig nun. What could that guy even have to sign over? He's already in hell.
Symbolism aside, Hieronymus Bosch was a true master of monster design, combining everyday objects, animals and human features in brilliantly uncanny ways seldom replicated with the same distinct atmosphere of incomprehensible wrongness. It never ceases to surprise me that our popular culture still recycles the same corny bull-horned devils and rocky lava-pool underworlds when an artist this prominent skewered such conventions more than five hundred years ago. When I think "demons," I think of Bosch's bird-faced, frog-legged teapot goblins long before a red skinned goat-man ever enters my mind.
HALLOWEEN 2012 ARCHIVE: