Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights

Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights (In-Person)

Instructor: Rebecca Ariel Porte
BISR Central
68 Jay Street, #425
Brooklyn, NY 11201

What can describe the quality of life after the end of the world doesn’t arrive—or doesn’t arrive in the form you expect? 1500 is the date that marks, for many historians, the beginning of modernity in Europe. It was a year of failed prophecies, scarce resources, violence, and social experiments that died before they had really lived. There was no radical break between past and present. The Last Judgement so many had expected collapsed into anticlimax when the sun rose the morning after the apocalypse never came. This world of miscarried worldviews was the one in which Hieronymus Bosch painted his most famous work: The Garden of Earthly Delights, a monumental triptych that depicts the Garden of Eden on one side, hell or hell-on-earth on the other, and, between them, the ambiguous earthly paradise of a pleasure garden. Dense with detail and wild invention, this painting articulates a forceful vision of the confusion, potential, animus, horror, and delight of life in a world that won’t stop ending. Critics have puzzled for centuries over whether the triptych encourages contempt for the world, loves it, observes it dispassionately, or judges it from within the chaos of history’s contradictions. What has provoked so much reading of this painting—and so much that negates itself: condemnation of earthly pleasure and endorsement, a record of world history and accidental prophecy of a hellish future, thoroughgoing modernity and strange atavisms? Why has Bosch’s work had such staying power? And what can it mean, for us, to contemplate The Garden of Earthly Delights in our own moment of endless endings?  

This course will investigate Bosch’s confrontation of an existence of endless endings, which might be summed up as the problem of how to represent the experience of having lived past the renovation that should have changed life, finally, into something other than this. Pursuing that question will plunge us into the context of the artist’s modernizing world, from its politics and religious practices to its social constructions, technological innovations, and aesthetic quandaries. How should we read The Garden of Earthly Delights as a painted object, its formal operations and its sensuous play? In what ways is this painting a critique of early modern Europe? How might it function as critique now? What does the triptych tell us about how race, gender, and sexuality function in the early modern moment? How should we understand Bosch’s address to the world in light of the aesthetics of his near contemporaries in the Northern Renaissance, including Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Joachim Patinir? Is Bosch’s painting, in some sense, avant-garde? What does the rest of Bosch’s oeuvre reveal about The Garden of Earthly Delights? How does the painting take up theology? What are the effects of Bosch’s interest in the monstrous? In addition to Bosch’s work, theory and criticism from many of the following sources will appear on the syllabus: Theodor Adorno, Aristotle, Walter Benjamin, John Berger, Margaret Carroll, T.J. Clark, Leah Devun, Michel Foucault, Wilhelm Fränger, Walter S. Gibson, Ernst Gombrich, Joseph Koerner, Rosalind Krauss, Maria H. Loh, and others.

Course Schedule

Thursday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
April 11 — May 02, 2024
4 weeks


Registration Open

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