Ways of Seeing Sexuality in The Garden of Earthly Delights (Final thoughts)

Introduction: Why sexuality?

Sexuality was and is experienced by all human beings in all times and spaces, but civilisations and cultures have viewed it in very different way throughout times and the artistic representation of those cultures show this. For example, ancient Greeks used sexuality as a central topic of their religion and their art; later, sexuality was taboo for medieval Europeans due to the expansion of Judeo-Christian values (and this was, again, expressed in their art); meanwhile, Japanese art of the Edo period portrayed a vision of sexuality that was erotic and harmonious.

Our project explores this and, therefore, makes two main assumptions: first, that sexuality is common for all human beings and, second, that perceptions of sexuality and its representation in time is fluid and changes throughout time and space. This is an analysis based on historical materialism, or the idea that the material (structural) reality of a certain period conditions its culture, how people create and perceive. However, a couple of questions arises from this straightforward material analysis, which are: if a work of art is particular to a time period, why does it connect with people beyond its era? What is the value of the work of art beyond its example of material culture of a time period? This is where our project comes in. Parting from Ways of Seeing as a theoretical framework, we expand on the idea that sexuality in art was perceived differently through time and space, and connect it with the value it has for nowadays. In this sense, we explain that perception is subjective to the spectator as well as to the historical period, and that the practice of interacting actively with art from the past can be means for individual and social liberation.

Critiques on the notion of Sexuality

According to our friend Foucault, sexuality as a cohesive action separated from other social relations is a modern notion brought to us by the European elite. According to him, ‘all this garrulous attention which has us in a stew over sexuality, is it not motivated by one basic concern: to ensure population, to reproduce labor capacity, to perpetuate the form of social relations: in short, to constitute a sexuality that is economically useful and politically conservative?’ (Foucault, 37). He argues that the creation is specifically European because the European tradition of views of sex from Christianity is very different to the ones of antiquity or other parts of the globe, such as Asia. The cultures outside Christianity commonly ‘endowed themselves with an ars erotica. In the erotic art, truth is drawn from pleasure itself, understood as a practice and accumulated as experience; pleasure is not considered in relation to an absolute law of the permitted and the forbidden, nor by reference to a criterion of utility, but first and foremost in relation to itself; it is experienced as pleasure, evaluated in terms of its intensity, its specific quality, its duration, its reverberations in the body and the soul‘ (60).  As we can see, sexuality for these cultures is nothing separate from their bodies and souls or social relations, but part of them and their everyday life. It had representation, because it was something people did (like eating) but it didn’t have a moral value accompanying them (if you think about it, there is not a concept such as sexuality for eating – and every human does it with different tastes and for different reasons). 

In Europe, since the Middle Ages, sexuality was interpreted by the act of confession and the ‘receptor valued how much sin you had made’ (67). In other words, sex becomes sexuality because it is valued under the label of “sin” and compare to virtues. For Foucault, this is problematic because it’s obviously an imposition from the elite (authority) to control the common people. He explains that ‘the cycle of prohibition: thou shalt not go near, thou shalt not touch, thou shalt not consume, thou shalt not experience pleasure, thou shalt not speak, thou shalt not show thyself; ultimately thou shalt not exist, except in darkness and secrecy. To deal with sex, power employs nothing more than a law of prohibition. Its objective: that sex renounce itself. Its instrument: the threat of a punishment that is nothing other than the suppression of sex. Renounce yourself or suffer the penalty of being suppressed; do not appear if you do not want to disappear. Your existence will be maintained only at the cost of your nullification. Power constrains sex only through a taboo that plays on the alternative between two nonexistences’ (84).  Indeed, ‘power is essentially what dictates its law to sex. Which means first of all that sex is placed by power in a binary system: licit and illicit, permitted and forbidden.[..] The pure form of power resides in the function of the legislator; and its mode of action with regard to sex is of a juridicodiscursive character’ (83). After all, ‘in Western societies since the Middle Ages, the exercise of power has always been formulated in terms of law’ (87). So, maybe, to analyse something in terms of sexuality is to already be an accomplice of a discourse of power directed from the elite to the common people. 

Sexuality in The Garden of Earthly Delights

We know little of the author of the painting, Hieronymus Bosch, and the painting itself. What we know is that the author was successful and painted for the Brussels elite (aristocrats), who were the representatives of the orthodox culture of that moment (Vergara, web). We also know that the triptych was painting in the last decade of the 15th century to be part of the personal collection of the Prince of Orange-Nassau, and decorated his palace in Brussels. This is incredibly uncommon, because triptychs had been objects reserved for churches, more specifically altars. This can probably tell us about the first steps of a secularisation process art was going through in that specific time, a time when medieval tradition and new Renaissance ideas coexisted in the higher classes of Northern European cultures. The fact that it was the aristocracy and not the church automatically gave more room for creativity and allowed Bosch to explore themes outside the sacred scripture (even though the triptych undoubtedly is based on the Bible).

The left of the triptych, the presentation of Eve, has strong religious significance but it’s accompanied with dream-like symbolism and representations of non-canonical Gospels (the Parables of Jesus). Indeed, this drifts away from the Catholic orthodoxy that had dominated the higher sphere for centuries until that time. We must remember the last decades of the 15th century and first decades of the 16th century were the times when Martin Luther and Protestantism gained momentum.  The panel, presents nudes as they are typically represented in European oil painting: static and passive. Yet, it is quite strange to find representations of this particular scene, and we have very few examples of it in Art History (Vergara, web).

Moving on to the second panel, we find the vivid representation of sexuality in a fantastic environment. ‘From 1200s, hybrid monsters and strange creatures peer out from bestiaries and the margins of illuminated manuscripts, influencing thereafter fantasy art’ (Art Book, 136), but it was still uncommon to find this kind of representation in a triptych; ‘utterly unconventional, it deviates substantially from the mainstream Netherlandish art of the time’ (Art Book, 136). It is a confusing scene that breaks with established order or composition hierarchy, and there is no specific focus. Art historians have found this panel extremely hard to interpret in regards to the authorial intent, as we know little of the author and the meaning is not explicitly detailed. In fact, Bosch didn’t even sign the work, but there is little doubt that it could be someone’s else.

In terms of sexuality as theme of the panel, ‘medievalist have argued that there was no term like “sexualitas” that corresponds to the modern one, no unified field of discourse. Medieval people, the argument goes, had sex, but they did not have sexuality, which is not just a series of sex acts but a category of human experience, a discourse about the body and what we do with it, a way of constructing meaning around behaviour. [Nevertheless] medieval people certainly had discourses of the flesh and of desire’ (Karras, 279). According to Katherine Harvey, ‘while Christian ideals indeed influenced medieval attitudes to sex, they were rather more complex than contemporary prejudices suggest. Christian beliefs interacted with medieval medical theories to help shape some surprising and sophisticated ideas about sex, and a wide variety of different sexual practices (Harvey, web). Furthermore, medieval approaches to sexuality were characterised by variety’ (Karras, 281), especially because the time period lasts for centuries and it covers all of Europe, so many cultures coexist under the term.

What is the role of sin then? ‘Much has been made of the medieval tendency to interpret disease as a product of sexual sin. Too much. In fact, the medieval tendency to see disease as sexual sin was not solely based on moral judgments – there were also strong medical elements. According to medieval understandings of the body, based on the system of the four humours (blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile), these men’s behaviour presented problems. The humours system derived from the idea that health was based on an equilibrium of the humours, and illness the product of imbalance. Humours were balanced, and good health maintained, through the expulsion of various bodily fluids, including semen. Regular sexual intercourse was thus part of a healthy life for most men, but moderation was key.’ (Harvey, web). More importantly, however, ‘the relationship between the behavioural expectations enunciated by the norms that society imposed to govern human activities and the recalcitrant realities of human conduct’ is evident. After all, no matter if sex is consider sinful, people won’t stop having urges because of it.  

Nevertheless, ‘in the study of sexuality, historians have to be even more careful than in other areas not to project their own attitudes onto the period of study. Sexuality is something about which many people in the modern world care deeply. […] In particular we must beware of the modern notion that sex is ideally an act of mutual pleasure involving two active partners, a two-way street’ (Karras, 280). It can be strange for us to see an image of sexuality with multiple bodies, and we can extrapolate our own feeling of strangeness into the painting to attribute a “true meaning”. However, as we argue, true meanings don’t necessarily exist in art, so interpretation is more important. 

‘The earliest surviving response to The Garden of Earthly Delights dates from 1517, when Antonio de Beatis – secretary to the Cardinal of Aragon – encountered it in the palace of the Nassau Counts in Belgium. This palace was a political hub of the Netherlands, and regularly hosted high profile diplomatic events. The painting was enthusiastically received by its distinguished audience’ (Art Book, 137). A bit more history about the property of the panel also tells us that it belonged to the aristocracy until 1939, when it was moved from the palace of El Escorial in Madrid (where it was for centuries since it was confiscated by the Spanish aristocracy in 1591) to the current location of El Museo de El Prado (Maroto, web). This means that, for centuries, this work of art was physically monopolised by the elite, so the wider audience did not actually engage with it and perceive it in any way. However, those privileged enough to have seen the work probably parted from the ideas of sex mentioned above. 

So, sexuality in the first panel is representative of the European nude: passive and static. Sexuality in the second panel challenges this notion and presents a multitude of bodies having pleasure (note that Eden in Hebrew means pleasure). What about the last panel of Hell? Could there be any sexuality represented in it? Well, according to historian Vern L. Bullough, masochism was a common sexual practice in the Middle Ages. ‘Quite obviously there are many elements in medieval society which emphasize both the importance of suffering and the need to give punishment. […] Although asceticism is not, in and of itself, necessarily masochistic, there is a line between the physical and mental training necessary to achieve greater self-control and sado-masochistic pleasure, between self-denial and self-punishment, but it is not always clear what that line is. Some of the early Christian ascetics seem to have crossed that line and, if one is to believe the descriptions of Palladius, that line was crossed often’. 

Does authorial intent matter in the interpretation of the work?

Evidently, knowing about the context of a work of art nowadays influences how we interpret it. However, we have to bear in mind that the people who engaged with the work in its period were probably not worried about the authorial intent, as at that time the author was really not relevant (one of the reasons why they didn’t sign their pieces), at least not as relevant was the person that commissioned the painting. 

In addition, it is difficult to assume a specific meaning or authorial intent in a painting of that period, as the knowledge of it is entirely fragmented because we don’t have records and we don’t live in their historical context – so we can’t perceive as they did. Even art historians are not clear about which artistic current corresponds to Bosch’s paintings. For example, Dr Alexandra Harris argues that ‘Bosch’s pale figures belong to the international gothic‘ (Harris, web) while Encyclopedia Britannica attributes Bosch’s work to the Late Gothic Flemish movement because ‘it shows individual decisions by the painter to portray the extreme and bizarre’, and other historians argue that he is currently a Northern Renaissance painter. Susie Nash problematises the pontentially conflicting terminology of (“Norther Renaissance”, “Late Gothic”, “International Gothic”) which is often employed to ‘describe fourteenth-, fifteenth- and sixteenth-century art and architecture in the north.’ These terms suggest artificial fissures that disrupt continuities and can be easily interpreted as conflicting – while they are not. So, even by assuming that Bosch’s belongs to one of this categories, we can imply a meaning to his work which is not really true nor relevant for our particular way of seeing. It can actually be a distraction.  

Furthermore, the monopolisation of art by the authorities have led people to believe that they should know everything about the context of a painting in order to engage with it. And even though knowing the context is necessary for historians that are studying the material culture of a time and place, it is really not necessary for a general public. In fact, even for historians knowledge and attributions of meaning can change through time depending on the research. For example, many art historians argue that Bosch was clearly portraying the actual world in the second panel, because they assume that it is what happened in the Bible after the creation of the original sin, and makes sense with the subsequent panel of Hell. However, other historians that have studied versions of the Bible have found that there is a sequence in the Bible after the creation of Adam and Eve which imagines the world as if the original sin was never conceived. Basically, it describes a lost paradise in which humanity could have enjoyed pleasures for eternity if Adam and Eve had not become sinful. Vergara (web) believes that this is the possible authorial intent of Bosch, since he was obviously an artist with creative freedom that didn’t depend directly on the church. Obviously, what you know about the Bible can severely affect your interpretation of the work, if you are looking for a real intention.

Another example of how knowledge about an art work changes, and so does authorial intent change with it is the fact that in 1951, German art historian Wilhelm Fraenger published a book titled The Millenium of Hieronymus Bosch, which was widely influential for Bosch students in the following decades. The book tried to prove that ‘Bosch’s symbols probably came from the secret, proverbial, heretical language of certain fifteenth century millennial sects, who heretically believed that, if evil could be overcome, it was possible to build a heaven on Earth’ (Berger, 36). This helped to see the triptych as an inherently positive message because, after all, it was the authorial intent. Nevertheless, Fraenger’s work is nowadays very much contested, especially because it is now known that Bosch was in fact part of a secret Christian organisation called The Brotherhood of Our Lady, which was actually very much orthodox. All the archives and information accumulated by the organisation became public in 2004 and historians currently have access to it. And so, the “real” meaning of the painting is now believed to be more moralising that utopic, due to Bosch’s religious orthodoxy. 

This last weekend, I had a conversation with a friend about the painting and asked her what was her way of seeing it, without caring about authorial intent. She told me that for her the painting was definitely a moral cautionary tale for people to avoid sin. Of course, she (as me) had taken a higher level of Art History in our last year of high school, and we had studied Bosch in detail. She knew (as I did) that the interpretation of the moralising tale was the one that had a wider acceptance by art historians. She also knew that in Bosch’s artistic production, the theme of sin came up over and over, somewhat obsessively.

The Haywain Triptych is another of Bosch’s paintings found in El Prado museum. It is an explicit tale of the consequences of greed, one of the seven cardinal sins. The metaphor of avarice and accumulation of hay appears in the Bible, so there is really not many interpretations about this triptych.

The Table of the Seven Deadly Sins is also a work found in El Prado attributed to Bosch (also not signed). As the title tells, it shows seven scenes that represent each of the capital sins.

Bosch’s representation of The Last Judgement (presented in this triptych as subsequent to the acquisition of the original sin) , is undoubtedly apocalyptic and it follows the description of Luke’s and Matthew’s books of the New Testament which explains that the people corrupted by sin will suffer the consequences of their acts. This representation of suffering is very similar to the panel of Hell in The Garden of Earthly delights, so it can be extrapolated that they both share the same meaning.

So, of course my friend could not separate her knowledge to her way of seeing, but she also was very much affected by the mystification and search of a “true” meaning imposed by the author.

However, I think that the value of the work is both what it can tell us about the past but, more important, how we can use it in the present. For example, in his essay of Bosch, Berger uses The Garden of Earthly delights as a metaphor for greed under the capitalist system. In the panel of Hell, he sees the consequences of this greed: suffering, elimination of the landless and homeless, totalitarianism…

Usefulness of the work now

This brings us my last question of this post: what is the usefulness of looking at sexuality in The Garden of Earthly Delights nowadays?

Our bodies it what connect us to the rest of the tangible world. Our bodies can, therefore, be the key to the ultimate utopia: a world in which everything is pleasurable. However, we still have material conditions that make this enjoyment impossible, we don’t have freedom in many ways to enjoy our bodies. Like Berger implied in his Bosch essay, the horrors of the modern world can create the opposite, our bodies can become a battleground of torture and suffering. For example, being killed by hunger or lack of refuge or wars or for protesting for better conditions, being raped or abused for our personal conditions, or even suffering for having to work every day for 9 hours and living under stress.

This is why I like to see The Garden of the Earthly Delights as a dialectical conversation between pure connection with our bodies in a completely innocent way – where not even nakedness is seen as something out of the ordinary (represented by the left panel), and a situation were our bodies are literally instrument for torturing us (represented in the right panel). In the centre, the synthesis of this conversation: a world were individuals are part of a community where everyone has the enough material conditions to enjoy their bodies in their own pleasurable way, and where sexuality is lived as part of an everyday search for enjoyment.

Of course, this is just a way of seeing.



The Art Book, published by DK with multiple authors, 2017.

The Bible. <https://bible.org/download/netbible/ondemand/bybook/gen.pdf>.

Berger, John. ‘Hieronymous Bosch’ (1999) in Portraits, Verso, 2017.

Bullough, Vern L. ‘Sex in History: A Redux’ in J. Murray and K. Eisenbichler, (eds.) Desire and Discipline: Sex and Sexuality in the Premodern West. University of Toronto Press, 1996.

Encyclopaedia Britannica. Western Painting, <https://www.britannica.com/art/Western-painting/Western-Dark-Ages-and-medieval-Christendom#ref582559>.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume I an Introduction, Random House, 1978.

Harris, Alexandra. Bosch and Bruegel review – more gripping than a thriller (2017) <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/feb/01/bosch-bruegel-joseph-leo-koerner>.

Harvey, Katherine. The Salacious Middle Ages (2014) <https://aeon.co/essays/getting-down-and-medieval-the-sex-lives-of-the-middle-ages>.

Karras, Ruth Mazo. ‘Sexuality in the Middle Ages’ in P. Linehan and J.L. Nelson (eds.) The Medieval World. London Routledge, pp. 279-293, 2001.

Nash, Susie. Northern Renaissance Art. Oxford History of Art, Oxford University Press, 2008.

Silva Maroto, Pilar. Ficha de El Jardín de las Delicias. <https://www.museodelprado.es/recurso/jardin-de-las-delicias-el-el-bosco/578702d4-4420-4e97-8518-8363a1fc2c9e

Vergara, Alejandro.  Otros ojos para ver el prado: El jardín de las delicias (Multimedia), <https://www.museodelprado.es/coleccion/obra-de-arte/triptico-del-jardin-de-las-delicias/02388242-6d6a-4e9e-a992-e1311eab3609?searchMeta=jardin%20de%20las%20delicias>.

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