Optical Illusion

Hieronymus Bosch's otherworldly masterpiece, The Garden of Earthly Delights, has been completely restored. But removing the patina hasn't clarified the meaning.

At the heart of a labyrinthine exhibit on the ground floor of Madrid's Prado Museum is a small room of paintings by the oddest and most enigmatic painter of the late Middle Ages: Hieronymus Bosch (ca. 1450—1516). The exhibit opened last year to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the death of Philip II (1527—1598), the Spanish king who reigned over a vast empire stretching from the Low Countries to South America. It was Philip who, in 1561, turned the village of Madrid into a capital city; who built the huge, implacably severe Escorial, 25 miles away, as his palace and family mausoleum; and who collected as many paintings by Bosch, the strange Netherlander, as he could lay his hands on. More than 20 works by Bosch were hung, we know from the royal librarian's records, "in his house, his cloister, his apartment," and elsewhere, and they were completely familiar to his children. On a visit to Lisbon in 1581, Philip wrote to his daughters: "I regret that you and your brother were not able to see the procession here, although it includes devils resembling those in Bosch's paintings, which I think would have frightened him."

Almost all the Bosch works known to have survived from Philip's day—through the heat and humidity of the Escorial and the vagaries of royal taste—are present in this small room today: The Adoration of the Magi (ca. 1495), The Hay Wain (ca. 1485—1490), and The Seven Deadly Sins (ca. 1480). But the picture that every visitor stops at—standing in a crowd two, three, and four deep—is the central panel of Bosch's famous triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, which was probably made ca. 1510.

One reason why they're staring at it—almost shocked—is that it is the brightest and newest-looking painting in the room. For apart from an area of sky at the top of the picture, filled with crustacean-like tower tops and fantastical flying creatures, it's been completely restored for the first time in more than 60 years by sisters Maria-Teresa and Rocio Dávila. The immensely detailed, dreamlike, almost hallucinatory worldly paradise it depicts pushes itself upon the eye with a brash vigor, a faintly sinister declarativeness that it hasn't had since it was transferred from the Escorial—perhaps since Bosch himself painted it. Upstairs its two side-panels—the left one showing a threatened, out-of-kilter Garden of Eden; the right, a teeming vision of the world in the grip of the Antichrist—are beginning the same treatment. All three are due to be exhibited together this month. And there is no doubt that their reunion will not only confirm The Garden of Earthly Delights as the Prado's most popular painting, it will also reopen with a vengeance two long-running art-history debates:

First, who was Hieronymus Bosch, and what was he up to? And second, by making paintings such as The Garden of Earthly Delights look freshly painted, are we guilty of a cosmetic anachronism—Disneyfying, in effect, our artistic heritage?

"There are some panels of various strange scenes . . . things which are so pleasing and fantastic that it would be impossible to describe them properly to those who have no knowledge of them." These words, which were written by a Spanish visitor to the Brussels palace of Duke Henry III of Nassau in 1517, are almost certainly the first historical written reference to the The Garden of Earthly Delights. But of the man who painted it, Jeroen (or Jheronimus) Anthoniszoon van Aken, later called Hieronymus Bosch, we know extremely little. All we know for sure is contained in 30 documents preserved in his hometown, 's-Hertogenbosch (literally The Duke's Woods), in the Netherlands' northern county of Brabant, where he was born ca. 1450. His grandfather, father, three uncles, and a brother were all painters who'd done well enough for Bosch to be born in a fine house on the town's main square. In 1478 he married the daughter of a wealthy, aristocratic family, and in 1486 his name begins to appear as a member of a religious order, the Brotherhood of Our Lady, which had its own chapel—the largest—in the local Cathedral of St. John.

Bosch painted the wings of an altarpiece for the brotherhood and designed stained-glass windows for its chapel. He also made the wings for the cathedral's high altar as well as another altar dedicated to St. Michael (none of these, nor any other work of his identified by name in contemporary records, has survived). He earned six times more than any other painter in the town and died a rich man in 1516—about the time Renaissance ideas began to arrive in the Netherlands, and shortly before Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses of the Reformation upon the Wittenberg church door.

Bosch, then, does not belong—even remotely—to the modern era. Instead he belongs to that strange, lost world we call the late Middle Ages: a world of guilds, processions, and religious associations in which precarious ideals like chivalry and devotion to God were under constant attack from the Devil in all his forms—heresy, witchcraft, lawlessness, corruption, the lure of the flesh, and the beguiling temptation of self-advancement. The atmosphere of his times was, by our standards, doom-ridden and hysterical. Sin was seen as universal, death was a horror, and the Last Judgment might arrive any day. In this atmosphere Bosch, more than almost any other European artist, was . . . well, a star. The archduke of Austria had one of his pictures, as did the archduke's sister Margaret. Bosch's reputation—and perhaps the artist himself—traveled as far as Venice, where a number of his paintings, recorded there as early as 1521, remain today. Certainly there is no record of his presence in 's-Hertogenbosch in the years around the beginning of the 16th century. And it's been argued that this is precisely the time when versions of Bosch's phantasmagorical creatures began to appear in the work of the young Giorgione and the older Leonardo da Vinci, who visited Venice during the same period.

Though using a familiar Flemish—Burgundian miniaturist style from the past, Bosch brought into religious paintings for the first time the popular imagery (and high anxiety) of demotic forms: the woodcut, the bestiary, the carved misericord, and the cathedral-top gargoyle. His large pieces, ardently completed for the art markets of the day, teemed with strange visions—devils, mythological beasts, imaginary creatures—side by side with ordinary people. As for The Garden of Earthly Delights, it seems to have been, even during Bosch's own lifetime, regarded as his masterpiece. Copies of it were painted, prints of it were circulated, and tapestries were produced from it. The original remained the property of the man who appears to have commissioned it: Duke Henry III of Nassau, deputy ruler of the Netherlands. But after Henry's death (and the death of his direct heirs), the longing to own The Garden of Earthly Delights caused, according to at least one scholar, a major international crisis. The painting was inherited by the German-born aristocrat William of Orange; then in 1568 the duke of Alba, who lusted after it and was unwilling to wait any longer, seized it by force, torturing William's housekeeper in the process. This helped push William into rebellion, and Europe into the so-called Eighty Years' War, which changed the continent's political map forever. However, neither the duke of Alba nor his family were to enjoy the triptych for long: It was soon acquired from his estate by King Philip II, whose inheritance and empire were to be bled slowly dry by the prosecution of the very war the painting had helped ignite.

Perhaps it's this association with blood, decline, and fall (as well as with that salvation-obsessed prosecutor of heretics Philip II, the central figure of Carlos Fuentes' extraordinary novel Terra Nostra) that makes the already-restored middle panel of The Garden seem so unsettling. On the face of it the painting represents a scene of primordial innocence and bliss. In a huge, watered garden men and women of every race frolic together, at one with nature and all of nature's creatures. They make shelters and boats out of husks, shells, and seedpods. They pick fruit and eat enormous berries, sometimes served by giant birds. In the center-ground, mounted on both real and mythological animals, they ride in a carefree carousel round a pond in which long-haired women are bathing.

Yet, as the eye travels from vignette to vignette across the painting (it has no central focus), it is hard to avoid the conviction that there are demons loose in this paradise. In the left foreground, for instance, two lovers are encased in a veined bubble growing out of a giant flower stem. Below them a man peers at an oncoming rat through a glass tube. Opposite them, the heads of a pair of back-to-back dancers are hidden beneath an inverted flower bud, on which sits an owl, the medieval symbol of Satan or sinful desire. The strange towers, which loom over the garden in the background, are also enough to give one pause. Mostly flesh-colored—both endlessly priapic and invaginated—they seem to be engaged in a malign and threatening parody of the human sexual act. If this is a paradise—I think, as the other spectators and I continue slowly to inspect the painting—then it is not surprising that almost from the beginning of its time in Spain the triptych was regarded with some suspicion. In the early 17th century Bosch was accused of being "a mocking unbeliever." In 1605 the royal librarian was forced to defend him against charges of heresy. But the best the librarian could come up with in the case of The Garden of Earthly Delights was that "the devotion and religious zeal of the King" would never "have tolerated" the painting had it been truly heretical. Having read Fuentes' Terra Nostra, though, I'm inclined to think that Philip II was a lot odder and more obsessional than the librarian gave him credit for.

This morning I spend a couple of hours in the office of the chief curator for European painting, talking with Maria-Teresa Dávila. For my benefit she goes over the laborious processes involved in The Garden's cleaning and settling: the washing-off of "the thick glaze of accumulated dust and pollution"; the removal of old varnish, "which has deanimated the original"; and the fixing of the colors, "to prevent dirt getting into the pores of the painting and to rejuvenate the gesso ground." In the case of the central panel, she says, a warm iron or spatula was applied through glue-charged silk paper to erase surface cracking and to return to the back-surface of the painting any portion that had come away. But she's reluctant to talk in any detail of the next stage: the repainting and retouching of the piece to make it more appealing to a modern audience. In fact, when I ask to see the two so-far unrestored panels, I'm told that this will be extremely difficult. For entry to the conservation department "requires the director's personal permission" and the director is, of course, away.

Finally, during the lunch hour, a museum official, either through oversight or fellow feeling, opens the door to the Prado's conservation department—temporarily housed in a series of empty second-floor galleries—and leaves me alone, except for a guard sitting at an entrance table. As I stand there I suddenly understand the reluctance of the museum's administration. For the seven-foot-three-inch-high side-panels of The Garden of Earthly Delights—one of them standing on an easel facing a window, the other laid down on a nearby trestle table—have none of their big sister's modern luster. Neither seems in such poor shape, it's true, as a neighboring El Greco (The Ascension), which—stripped to what remains of its original paintwork— seems like a skeleton. But in Bosch's so-called "Eden" panel there are dark-yellow stains where the old varnish has oxidized, widespread surface cracking, and what a passing museum employee calls "measles": white spots, some of them sizable, where the paint has buckled or flaked away.

Nevertheless, the panels are a transfixing sight as I wander back and forth between them, peering through the back-slats of the easel at The Garden's rarely seen door cover. (Its picture of the world halfway through creation has been described as "the first pure landscape in European painting.") There's enough here to satisfy all those who have insisted on seeing in the triptych assorted pre-echoes of surrealism and the industrial era, of Dali, Freud, and Jung. (There are even some who've claimed that Bosch must have been a major user of psychotropic drugs.)

Certainly both panels seem like perverse visions, and raise more questions than we can ever hope to answer. Why, for example, in the left-hand ("Eden") panel, is it Christ, rather than God, who introduces Eve to Adam? Why, near Christ's feet, on the banks of a pool and within it, are there all sorts of phantasmagorical creatures who seem anything but peaceful? In the background are other disturbing creatures—a rabbit (a sex symbol if ever there was one) crouching by Eve's left hand, a dog walking on two legs, a lizard with three heads, a feral porcupine. At the heart of the eerie pink tower which dominates the composition—and looks like nothing so much as a parody of the font which survives in 's-Hertogenbosch's cathedral—there's not only a second owl but a crescent moon, the symbol of the infidel, suggesting the Devil, too, is somewhere in this garden.

The right-hand panel is, at first blush, a good deal more straightforward: a depiction of Hell or the rule of the Antichrist. At the top of the picture the world is on fire; there is war, destitution, and pillage. The foreground and middle-ground are a nightmare of torture and violence. But then the painting's considerable mysteries begin to take over. Who, for instance, is the throned, bird-headed figure gobbling up humans and defecating them into a cesspool below? And whose, above all, is the face staring out at us from the center of the painting, his cracked, bleach-boned body seemingly an inn for travelers, his broken, skeleton legs sunk in two ice-boats, his hat supporting a danse macabre round a bagpipe? The more I look at the panel, the more I find myself being taken up in the details (a man trying to dodge a pig coiffed like a nun; a Juggernaut made of a kitchen knife and two ears), sucked into a kind of homiletic hallucination. I begin by thinking that The Garden of Earthly Delights might be simple, a sort of lecture on the sacredness of marriage. But I end up believing that it is full of arcane, contradictory messages—and that Bosch was indeed, by the light of his times, a heretic.

After an hour alone with the panels I'm caught in flagrante by Rocio Dávila, who's come to pick up a package from the chair in front of the easeled Hell scene. (The sisters, I've been told, worked side by side on the central section; now they've divided up the side-panels.) She is charming enough, but has no time to talk now: She has to take a consignment of paintings to Valladolid. She is soon on the phone to her sister, Maria-Teresa, who seems agitated and tells me that if I leave now—and she means immediately—she'll meet me outside the conservation lab in an hour and a half.

When I show up at the appointed time she still seems anxious, and it's only after a pair of long, drawn-out telephone calls to the powers that be that she finally agrees to take me back to the side-panels. What she's hesitant about, of course, is the contrast between their dull, uneven surface and the shining, clearly delineated details of the central section on exhibit below. For this strikes right to the heart of the controversy about modern restoration—a controversy which a few years ago engulfed the unveiling of Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, albeit for slightly different reasons. The problem is that old works like The Garden tend not only to have faded but to have been retouched—and sometimes overcleaned and extensively repainted—at various times in the past. Thus what exactly to remove in restoration, and how to replace it, become vexed questions indeed. Is it legitimate, for example, to remove the whole conservational history of a picture and start again from scratch, giving back to the picture what are imagined to be its original colors?

"Right from the beginning," says Maria-Teresa, as we look down on the damaged "Eden" panel, "our sole concern has been to stay as faithful as possible to the original. We have been helped in this, to some extent, by a copy now in Budapest, perhaps made by Bosch's own son." Before restoration began, she stresses, there were meetings of experts and a prolonged study of every kind of analysis: x-ray and infrared, microscopic, electronic, chemical. She takes from a cupboard some of the study's photographic results relating to the central panel, and she points out Bosch's underdrawings and traces of previous additions and alterations, some of which were deleted and, in one or two cases, corrected. At the bottom center of the panel (and from now on this will be a sure way of distinguishing reproductions old from new) one of two inverted half-human, half-bird figures is standing on one arm. Now, once again, it's standing on two.

All the time, as we talk, she continues to point out the quality of the surviving colors. "The greens, blues, reds, and oranges, particularly," she says, "were in very good shape." But I'm no expert; and so I end up asking her simply whether she has enjoyed working on the triptych. (She and her sister have been restoring the Prado's pictures for a combined total of 45 years.) "Well," she replies, "it's actually been quite difficult. You have to reach back to the feelings of the artist, to what he is trying to tell of the spirit. The individual scenes and figures in the painting are obviously very important to him, and yet at the same time they're part of an inclusive vision, an architectural whole. So we found we had to stand back all the time when we were working on the detail."

"Yes, but do you like Bosch?" I ask. "Do you think he was a good Catholic?"

"Well," Maria-Teresa says, throwing her hands wide, "I'm not an art historian. But there is one thing I think I detected: what might be an Italian influence—from Botticelli, perhaps, and Arcimboldo."

In the end, the proof of the pudding of a restoration lies in the seeing. So before we say good-bye, Maria-Teresa takes me down again to The Garden's central panel, perhaps originally painted—as she's gently suggested—with a past visit to Italy somewhere in Bosch's mind.

Once more the crowd around it is three or four deep—as it is for no other painting here. It's as if the people seeing it for the first time understand instinctively that it's not like the other works in this royal show: This painting is about them, about ordinary humanity. It's accessible, though inexplicable, and they linger a long while in front of it, their eyes moving from scene to scene, reading it like a story. It may be, of course, that in the work's shining new guise they're encouraged to see it as modern, and Bosch as a sort of visionary forerunner of Dali and the rest.

But I don't believe, in the end, that this matters any more than my temptation to see in the painting something of Leonardo's smoky softness of style, and Giorgione's use of wispy, delicate highlights. For however dressed up it may be, The Garden of Earthly Delights—with its millenarian, end-of-the-world preoccupations—provides us most of all with a unique look deep into the medieval mind, as Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling is a speculum into the shifted mind of the Renaissance. Or perhaps, I decide as I linger, it is more personal than that: Perhaps Bosch really was a secret heretic, convinced that the world had been made and was ruled by the Devil in defiance of God. Perhaps he believed that its institutions, including the Catholic Church, were the Devil's creations. And perhaps this painting, I imagine like some others before me, was no less than a heavily disguised and coded message sent out to fellow believers.

Hieronymus Bosch's newly restored "Garden of Earthly Delights" is scheduled to go on display at the Prado Museum in Madrid on July 1st. For more information, call 34-91-330-28-00.


Disclaimer: The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication in July/August 1999, but we suggest you confirm all details with the service establishments before making travel plans.