Dante’s Inferno and The Garden of Earthly Delights
The Garden of Earthly Delights painted by Hieronymus Bosch, depicts many vivid fictional scenes in triptych style. The right wing of the triptych depicts Hell and the causes of man’s downfall, which Dante wrote about in the Inferno. Dante tries to convey to all humanity the consequences of human actions and the levels of hell that he believes exist for different levels of sins. Dante divides Hell up into ten different circles, and there is an upper and a lower level of Hell. Dante and Bosch have similar views on the evil within people and this evil is represented in their works, whether it transpires in a painting or in a book.
This evil is evident in the right wing of The Garden of Earthy Delights, which can be used to portray scenes from almost all of Dante’s circles of Hell. Fire is seen in much of the painting, which can be symbolic of death. Fire is one of the only elements man can create so fire can also be seen as a symbol of mortality. Virgil said, “I come to lead you to the other shore, into eternal darkness, ice, and fire.” (Canto III: line 87) This quote shows the connection of fire and Hell. Fire can also be representative of the Holy Spirit and this relates to Dante who ties religion into the Inferno. Fire is the background of much of the top of the painting. Virgil said, “Eternal fire burns within, giving off the reddish glow you see diffused throughout this lower Hell.” (VII: 73-75)
Another scene in Bosch’s painting that is striking appears towards the bottom and in the middle of the painting. A red instrument that is large and rounded has figures circling around it, some of which are dressed like nuns and one who is dressed like a Pope. These figures may be representative of Dante’s belief in God and the Church which are two themes in the Inferno. Dante mentions Pope Nicholas III, Pope Boniface VIII, and Pope Clement V who are in hell for corrupting ecclesiastical offices in the Church and profiting from their actions. “You have built yourselves a God of gold and silver! How do you differ from the idolator, except that he worships one, you worship hundreds?” (XIX: 112-114) This could be why the Pope and nuns in The Garden of Earthly Delights are in Hell. They are also seen lamenting as they walk around the instrument, and according to Dante, lamenting is often heard in Hell.
An additionally poignant scene in the painting is the part where a man is seen pierced through by a key. This is symbolic of a rich man who tries to keep his belongings all to himself by always guarding them, as under lock and key, and not sharing his wealth. In the Inferno, Dante says that these hoarders are unrecognizable because they spent all their time with their material goods and were otherwise undistinguished in life. Virgil says, “It was squandering and hoarding that have robbed them of the lovely world, and got them in this brawl.” (VII: 58-59)
Selfishness is a quality that both Bosch and Dante look down on completely and selfish actions are some of the worst. In the center of the painting a man is seen climbing a ladder into the disemboweled chest of a man. This climbing man is representative of people bringing about their own punishments. For instance, Dante looks down greatly on people who have committed suicide, as does the Church. In the Inferno, these people are ripped apart by dogs in the Wood of Suicides. “They sank their fangs in that poor wretch who hid, they ripped him open piece by piece, and then ran off with mouthfuls of his wretched limbs.” (XIII: 127-129) To the right of the disemboweled man are animals that look like rats are eating away at a person dressed in armor. This could be symbolic of crimes against one’s country. “And that you may report on me up there, know that I am Bertran de Born, the one who evilly encouraged the young king.” (XXVIII: 133-135) Dante portrays the figure of Bertran as a man who is holding his head that has been cut off. With regards to the disemboweled person, “Wrong is it for a man to have what he once cast off.” (XII: 104-105)
There is a woman at the bottom right of the painting that is being held by a kangaroo type creature. This creature may represent the invisible force that Dante believes is inside a sinner that makes him do the things he does, whether it be caused by mental or physical suffering. One of the sinners in the Inferno, an Impersonator, kept craving water. He said, “O you who bear no punishment at all (I can’t think why) within this world of sorrow, he said to us, pause here and look upon the misery of one Master Adamo: in life I had all that I could desire, and now, alas, I crave a drop of water.” (XXX: 58-63) There is a man pictured near the woman and he is throwing up. This could also be representative of the evil inborn in sinners.
At the bottom left side of the painting is a man about to be eaten by a termite who has a game table on his head. This is illustrating that the tables are turned on the man who has committed some terrible crime. In the Inferno this is represented by Lucifer eating the three worst sinners, Judas Iscariot, Brutus, and Cassius, all who betrayed their benefactors. Dante said, “In each of his three mouths he crunched a sinner, with teeth like those that rake hemp and flax, keeping three sinners constantly in pain; the one in front- the biting he endured was nothing like the clawing that he took: sometimes his back was raked clean of its skin.” (XXXIV: 55-60) Judas was being punished for betraying Christ. The three heads of Lucifer may stand for the Trinity in some kind of twisted way.
Dante and Bosch feel that lust corrupts man and man’s corruption is evident is his actions. Dante’s Inferno takes the reader through different levels of Hell, and as the levels get lower, the punishments increase in their frightfulness. Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights is almost a pictorial representation of Dante’s Inferno. Dante feels that the ultimate sin is one against God and the Church and consequently, Lucifer instates the ultimate punishment. Some of the ideas painted by Bosch are vague and can be analyzed in many ways. The ears with the arrow though them and knife between them may be seen as punishment inflicted by others but it can take on different significance. Both Bosch and Dante come across as disturbed people because the graphic images they create are not pleasant but rather evil. One wonders if they created such disturbing images because they led unhappy lives or if they were expressing hidden emotions in their works. The right wing of the triptych of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights manifests one’s worst nightmares all in one painting. Dante’s Inferno can be seen as a guide for people to live by so that they do not end up in Hell like the sinners in his book.
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