It was many-many years ago, me being a boy of 7 or 8, while visiting a Greek Orthodox Monastery in Samos Island, when I saw an icon with a rather unusual iconography; groups of naked people in peculiar formation surrounded by, unrecognizable to me, beasts and strange constructions. Some people looked joyous, some looked puzzled and some of them looked like they were suffering. Naturally I knew nothing about art and Byzantine iconography but, by comparison alone, I could tell that this icon was a unique one. All the other icons in the church were depicting serene-looking saints, majestic Madonnas and scenes from Jesus’ life such as the Transfiguration* or the Resurrection. This was an orgy (no, I did NOT know this term back then) of action and colors and enigmatic gestures with a narrative that tells dozens of stories at the same time with none of them clear and simple, at least to me.
It took me years to understand that what I saw this day was a Greek-Orthodox interpretation of Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights”, heavily adapted to the strict do-not-dare-to-be-sinful character of Greek Christianity. It was almost a shock to me that an image created by a 15th century Netherlandish painter proved to be so powerful and so universal that resulted to be copied by an unknown religious painter in this small island at the edge of Europe!
Jheronimus Bosch (c. 1450–1516), The Garden of the Earthly Delights Triptych. Oil on panel, 185.8 x 172.5 cm (centre panel); 185.8 x 76.5 cm (left and right panels). c. 1490–1500. Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado. Depósito de Patrimonio Nacional
I saw the original triptych 25 years later at my first visit at the Prado Museum and dozens of times ever since (more recently as the centerpiece of the “Bosch. The 5th centenary exhibition”) and I realized that this is one of the artworks that will never seize to amaze me. The complexity of the narrative, the artistic excellence, the captivating colors and the grand size of “The Garden of Earthly Delights” are the elements that will make you remember this panel forever. At least this is my own personal connection to the painting which seems determined to conceal its secrets and retains its meanings hidden just like the replica I saw all those years ago, and it will probably continue to do so for some more centuries after I am gone. Isn’t this the very definition of a timeless masterpiece?
*I also took me many years to realize that the standard image of Christ’s Transfiguration in that same church was actually an exact reproduction of Raphael’s painting, today at the Pinacoteca Vaticana!
Jheronimus Bosch (c. 1450–1516), Table of the Seven Deadly Sins. Oil on panel, 120 x 150 cm. c. 1505–10. Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado. Depósito de Patrimonio Nacional
Jheronimus Bosch (c. 1450–1516), The Haywain Triptych. Oil on panel, 133 x 100 cm (centre panel); 136.1 x 47.7 cm (left panel); 136.1 x 47.6 cm(right panel). c. 1512-15. Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
Jheronimus Bosch (c. 1450–1516). The Adoration of the Magi Triptych. Oil on panel, 133 x 71 cm (centre panel); 135 x 33 cm (left and right panels), c. 1494. Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
Jheronimus Bosch (c. 1450–1516), The Temptation of Saint Anthony. Oil on panel, 70 x 115 cm. c. 1510-1515. Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
Bosch. The 5th centenary exhibition will be on view at the Prado Museum, Madrid until September 25, 2016