It was 1517, the time of the Reformation. Catholics and Protestants were at war. How did The Garden of Earthly Delights survive this difficult time ?
The Garden of Earthly Delights can seem profound to different people, for different reasons, and even to different societies and different eras. The next chapter of the story of this painting is about a quite an amazing turn around in how it was perceived.
Hendrik III of Nassau kept the painting safe until 1938 when the Nassau family completely lost their power. The picture was inherited from Hendrik III of Nassau by his nephew William "The Silent", the protestant rebel who attempted to get Catholic Spain out of Netherlands. In this religious war that lasted 80 years works of art and books of knowledge were destroyed, burned in great public bonfires. Bosh's painting was a product of a liberal Catholic Renaissance. It could afford a degree of experimentalism that would be much more difficult once catholic protestant wars broke out, and fundamentalism was the score on both sides.
In 1568 The Garden of Earthly Delights which might well have been in danger from its protestant owner, was confiscated from the Nassau Palace by Spanish troupes. In 1591 it entered the art collection of the Spanish king Philip II. He was Catholic and wanted to beat down the rise of the Protestantism, and he used the offices of the inquisition to do it. For Phillip II Bosh's art was basically, propaganda for Catholic values, besides The Garden of Earthly Delights, the king acquired other religious works painted by Bosh, including thi table top:
This curious work pictures heavenly goodness around the corners, Jesus ruling in glory on right corner, but he is also pictured in the centre, in the pupil of an eye and going around, the pictures of earthly badness. The seven deadly sins. Together they sum up the things we must not do. What will happen to us if we do it ? Where human existence is leading to ? What are the aims of God ? Where do we stand with those aims ? We all must be moral, we all must look within, and it is that moral imperative that those pictures are reminding us of.
For the sin of lust, aristocrats feed each other, court each other and listen to the sound of aristocratic music, represented by the instruments in the picture.
When Philip turned to the Garden of Earthly Delights, he saw that Bosh painted music as torture. Musical instruments, become torture instruments.
And the theme of feeding was painted as a sign of sensuality, extended in the painting in many ways ...
When humans gather in clusters, ready for food, is almost as if they have been grown themselves, like human fruit, fresh bodies ready for other bodies to enjoy.
It is amusing for contemporary people, but for Philip II it was really serious, it was art exposing religious wrong doing.
It was a time of religious high anxiety, people were checked for wrong thinking. For heresy they were often tortured. Paintings were checked for heresy and often they were burned. The inquisition went about this business with great enthusiasm and it was on this climate that The Garden of Earthly Delights with all this unpredictable weirdness and colours, sensuality, giant birds dropping fruits into the mouths of nude humans ... in the climate of religious paranoia, The Garden of the Earthly Delights survived.
The inquisition office officially cleared Bosh's painting from heresy ... but how come if there is a picture of pig dressed as nun ...?
It is a beautiful pig seducing a man to sign a legal document, presumably signing away all his money. It is only right to satirize church corruption, the inquisition said. Church dogma can never be questioned, but actual church practice must always be monitored.
The Garden of Earthly Delights did not always have that title, we don't know what Bosh called it, but we do know that Phillips officials called it The Strawberry Painting.
The key to this painting's power is that Bosh shows us that is possible to look inside your head without morality and come up with a picture for that feeling ... the art of the unconscious ... when the feelings we have but we don't know we have are shown by art.