Project 6: Masks Research

Hieronymous Bosch: “The Garden of Earthly Delights”


I was drawn to explore this work on the advice of my tutor, in the context of the “Masks” project. Following a visit to the city of Venice,  I took many photographs of the masks which are displayed all over the city and wanted to used these in my own work.

To help me understand the context for this incredibly complex painting I tried first to understand why the artist might have sought used the motifs and themes seen in the painting, looking back to the concept of Carnival and its relationship to the religious beliefs associated with it.

The Masks

Metamorphosis from human to animal form is a common theme in carnival masks and costumes and is used to great effect in the Garden of Earthly Delights.
The artist Max Beckman lived from 1450-1516, in Medieval Europe, when the influence of the church in art was very significant, with many paintings being produced for church patrons. Bosch had connections to the catholic church and would have identified with the concepts of heaven, hell and creation from the teachings of the church. He would have been familiar with the feast of Easter and the concept of Lent and the fasting and penitential rites which are associated with it.

Celebrations of Carnival take place in many Catholic communities in Europe and Latin America immediately prior to the commencement of Lent, a period of strict fasting and penance which is observed by some Christian faith groups for the 6 weeks prior to the religious feast of Easter. Before the fasting of Lent begins, many such communities celebrate with elaborate festivals, with music, dancing and feasting. During the celebrations, participants often wear masks depicting animal figures such as rabbits, lions, clown figures which mask the identity of the original wearer.
Other mask forms include those which depict distortion of the human face, for example, enlarged noses and phallic symbols, the “ Grotesque Body”.
This phenomenon of the Grotesque Body was postulated by the Russian literary critic Michael Bakhtin in relation to his interpretation of the work of Franciose Rabelais. Bakhtin describes the phenomenon as:

“ degradation, the lowering of all that is abstract, spiritual, noble, and ideal to the material level” (Bakhtin)

Bosch makes prolific use of the grotesque within the Garden of Earthly Delights, presumably to both delight the viewer with his vision of paradise and to shock and repulse the viewer with his vision of hell.

The vision of hell depicted in the right hand panel is revealed to us, in stark contrast to the blissful delights of the Garden of Eden on the right hand panel and the earthly paradise shown in the central panel.

The death of my father during the time I was working on the course also heightened thoughts of the concept of the soul and heaven and hell with these themes constantly reappeared in my thinking at this stage of the course.

The interior painting (Figure1), is a triptych painted in oil on wood panel. The interior panels are painted in rich colour and show 3 different landscapes, populated by a wondrous array of human, animal and plant life. Many of the figures combine these different forms of like, in a fantastical representIon of paradise and hell. The richness of the landscape and ever-surprising array of life- forms keeps the eye of the viewer glued to the canvas in an almost voyeuristic experience as the mind absorbs the potential for metamorphosis of man or woman into any number of interesting and horrific forms.

The left panel shows presenting a vision of The Garden of Eden before the fall of Adam and Eve. It is a rich landscape depicting a mountainous background, garden middle and foreground. The artist has place the main figures of interest in the foreground, with God shown in rich pink robes in the centre of the picture plane with Adam and Eve, naked on each side. They are surrounded by a wonderful array of animals and birds amongst which they co-exist in perfect harmony. The tree which will lead to their eventual temptation and expulsion is shown to the left of the picture plane. The use of rich greens and blues, together with the stunning variety of colours used to paint the animal characters creates an image which is both beautiful and welcoming. The freedom suggested by the nakedness of the couple evokes an idyllic existence. We could still identify with these sentiments if we did not have strong religious beliefs as many of Bosch’s original audience would have had.

The central panel is also a rich coloured landscape with background and middle and foreground. A river is shown, flowing towards the distance. Here, the artist seems to have used linear perspective to add to the sense of depth in the painting. The middle and foreground are crammed with figures, some still obviously human in form and some metamorphosed into strange and unrecognisable forms. The figures are completely unselfconscious in their nakedness and postures.

The panel n the right shows Bosch’s vision of Hell. It is a landscape painted using black for the background colour, suggesting perpetual darkness, with the glow of distant fire. A number of hellish scenarios are set out for the human participants in the scene. These show a range of images of torture and degradation in store for those condemned to spend eternity in hell.

When the panels are folded inwards, the exterior depicts the creation of the earth in monochrome, with the Creator presiding over the globe. This sets out the overall narrative for the painting and prepares the viewer for the religious theme to come. The use of monochrome on the exterior of the panels adds to the element of surprise which must assail the viewer on opening the panels to reveal the magnificently coloured interior.

Developing the “Mask”Series

In my work for the Mask series, I have drawn on the concept of the soul and redemption, using manipulation of the Carnival masks which I photographed in Venice. These masks used distortion
( elongation of the nose and chin ). Rabbit and lion heads were also seen in the Venice masks.

I used the Photoshop programme to simplify the mask forms to simple line for use in a print. An alternative approach was to increase the constraint dramatically to abstract the form of the masks.
This produced and interesting effect which was used to develop “ the Soul is Mine Alone” series.

Colours purple, red and black were selected to reflect penitence, sin and death.


1.Bosch: Hieronymus Bosch, Grange Books
Confidential Concepts, worldwide, USA 2004
Sir Rocco, London,2004 (English Version)

2. Hieronymous Bosch Visions and Nightmares, Nils Butter
Publisher,Reaktion Books Ltd, 2016, London

3. Ref Wikipedia





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