Weird Earthly Delights: From Ensor to Bosch

Ensor’s show at MoMA reminded me of yet another comparison: a similarly weird, awkwardly- figured, semi- allegorical/demonic painter: Bosch. Ensor’s work is deliberately bizarre as a method of self- fashioning, while Hieronymus Bosch– well, is anybody’s guess, but mine would be he couldn’t help himself. He was truly odd.

If you want a fun trip around the world, take Google Earth over to the Prado Museum in Spain where you can see Bosch’s masterful triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights in which a “religious” imagination runs riot.

Things are fairly normal on the left hand side, where God creates Adam and Eve. Hell is still recognizable in the right hand panel. In the center, the garden of earthly delights is full of nude cavorting men, women, birds and monsters who stick things in odd places rather than the more innocent pleasures of, say, board games and ice cream.

Check out some of Bosch’s earthly delights:

Each of these scenes are supposed to have an individual moral meaning, but they all seem centered on the pleasures of the flesh. Although the triptych form suggests it was intended as a altarpiece, the bizarre acts of the nude figures have convinced most art historians that it must have been intended for a lay person. (Or a swinging monastery perhaps??)

The difficult symbology of the central panel has often been interpreted as a warning over life’s temptations, and what a warning it is. Symbolism of this work is certainly open to interpretation and this worked in Bosch’s favor. Amazingly considering the subject matter, this panel was popular enough to generate many copies and Bosch flourished even under the sway of the Medieval Church. While I’m not sure of the particulars, I know what the works says to me:

Look at me! Look at all these happy, nude cavorting figures exploring their sexuality. What fun, with fruit and water and flowers and other naked people! This is so much more interesting than those two smaller, boring panels to the side. Wouldn’t you like to live here?

3 thoughts on “Weird Earthly Delights: From Ensor to Bosch

  1. By bizare, I was referring to his use of skeletons and masks in his self-portraits, which with his florid colors and literal interpretation seemed more hysterical than traditional memento mori. In his earlier painting of himself as Rubens, he seems to be trying to define himself as an artist of the same ilk.

    I thought that his later use of skeletons and masks, combined with his paranoia about how the world viewed his work, was an similarly deliberate attempt to define himself and his work, this time as ‘other.’ His use of those signs continued without evolving, becoming tropes he used as identifying markes. While no doubt skeletons and masks, etc had meaning for him, I felt he was highly-conscious of how he used them in reference to himself.

    Does that make sense?

  2. Yes, and thanks. Although, I disagree that the self-portrait as Rubens was an attempt to define himself as an artist of the same ilk. I think he was just fidgeting with a mode of self-representation as “other”, as you put it.

Leave a Reply