The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch

I passed by a pub called The Hunter S. on my way to a friends house, carrying my guitar and a suitcase full of underwear. I was in between flats and needed a place to put the last of my things while I went away from London to live rent free for a couple of weeks in Malta and in Washington D.C.

The Hunter S.

That pub was made for me, I thought. From the outside, it looked exactly like a pub in East London would: hanging plants, dark walls, outdoor seating full of people smoking and eating. But, the title was unique in a city full of traditional, The Noun & Noun pubs (e.g. The Hope & Anchor, The Crown & Shuttle, The Hoop & Grapes, The Cat & Mutton) and let me reminisce again about being sixteen and reading and re-reading The Rum Diary and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

I finally went to The Hunter S on Saturday. I was with a friend (and I had just shaved his head) and when we walked in and got our pints, we were magnetized to the back corner by a print of The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, hanging close to a set of armchairs.

I’ve loved The Garden of Earthly Delights since I saw it in Madrid. The painting hangs in The Prado, where it’s an outlier for not being a massive portrait of Jesus. The piece is painted over three tiles and, while there is no consensus over what Bosch was trying to convey, it is generally believed to be a painting warning viewers of the danger of lust and pleasure.

The left panel shows the beginning of humanity. God just finished creating Adam and Eve and the world is peaceful and natural looking. Animals are swimming in calm ponds and pretty, manicured plants with orange and red fruits wave in the painted wind.

The middle panel shows a delightful looking world where people are being sexy and eating oversized fruits. Curvy, futuristic buildings with water features and glass tunnels sit in cerulean ponds full of tame animals. Everyone is getting along; birds and humans are playing with cherries, shrimp and blueberries are crowd surfing over piles of humans and monkeys. Everyone can do a handstand.

The right panel is hell. Deer skeletons and presidential faces are homes for humans, who are killing one another and being killed by distorted, scary animals with knives, spears and trumpets. Dragons are writing sheet music on human buttcheeks and vicious cats with books on their heads shoot glares from among crowds of tormented people. People hang from keys, people are woven into harps, people walk on tightropes above fiery cliffs.

Assuming this three part painting is about giving into temptation, you would interpret it sequentially: the left panel shows the origin of human life, the middle panel shows humans falling prey to the ecstatic feelings of pleasure and the final panel shows what happens when they do.

My friend and I spent some time studying the details of The Garden of Earthly Delights and noticed something remarkable about Bosch’s world: in Bosch’s hell, completed in 1515, there seemed to be a lot of musical instruments, toys and games that we still play in their exact same form today.

We’ve done nothing, it seems, to change the nature of playing cards, harps, backgammon, dice, drums, knives, ice skates, boats, or the way that we write music. Each one of those things appears in Bosch’s hell the same way that you can buy it today on Amazon.

In a lot of ways, we look drastically different than people from 1515 — we’re taller and larger and wear more cotton than the average person from that time would have. And yet, playing cards look exactly the same as they did. They have the same shape, are printed using the same colors and the suits are the same. How could it be that, in 504 years, we didn’t decide once that maybe playing cards should look a different way¹?

The knives took us by surprise; they look so shiny in Bosch’s hell, like a nice Henckels knife that my parents might give me if I ever buy my own house. They don’t look rusty and dull and gritty at the handle, the way we imagine all old things must have always looked — never shiny and new, always rusty. But the reality is that all things are new at one point and new knives in 1515 looked exactly the same as new knives in 2019 do.

I used to think backgammon was an old game that my grandparents played, but now I realise that it was also an old game that was played by Pharaohs and rulers of Babylon².

In fact, before looking at The Garden of Earthly Delights, I didn’t think that people older than eighty had the luxury of imagining buildings with curves or playing Backgammon on the beach³ or using knives that could slice tomatoes. I didn’t think that, in 1515, there was space in the human mind for glass tunnels or sheet music or see-through umbrellas. I assumed that games and tools from before the 1900s were rocks and sticks, unchanged in form and that the human mind was occupied exclusively by a dusty, black and white reality.

I thought that our world today was more unique than it is — I thought that the last one hundred years had seen huge advances in every space which made today look and feel wholly different and incomparable to a day five hundred years ago. But that isn’t true.

We’ve been trodding along slowly since the beginning of time, adding to our world bit by bit. It may have taken 3000 years to get to the final version of dice, but then we stuck with it because we had other things to worry about, like how Settlers of Catan should be played.

We’ve carried many objects, unchanged, from thousands of years ago. Perhaps this should come as no surprise to me but it did, in the same way that it’s surprising to find out that your parents also had acne when you’re a kid. It’s hard to remember how much past there is and how similar everything has always been and sometimes the only way to remember is by staring at the past for forty minutes in a bar with a pint in East London.

  1. Playing cards date back to the 9th century, A.D., which is the same century when Charlemagne lived, Dublin was founded and the Prague Castle was built.
  2. Backgammon is one of the oldest two-person games and dates back to 3000 B.C. 3000 B.C. is also when the Neolithic period ends, Stonehenge begins to be built and early agriculture begins in Africa.
  3. Maybe the “on the beach” part is a newfound luxury, but even that I can’t be sure of.

Writer, t-shirt designer, software engineer. Child. Canoe.

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