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‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ from a gardener’s perspective

“Who loves a garden still his Eden keeps;

Perennial pleasures plants, and wholesome harvests reaps.”

— Amos Bronson Alcott, The Garden, in “Tablets,” 1868

When I added “The Garden of Earthly Delights” to my 2022 reading list, I thought I was getting “A Garden of Earthly Delights,” a 1967 novel by Joyce Carol Oates that is one of several books in Michael Pollan’s edited Modern Library Gardening Series.

On the happy day when my books arrived in the mail, I realized my error but was so intrigued by the back cover description of Michael Dodds’ 2014 historical novel that I ended up reading it first.

I am a firm believer in making the most of serendipity, so this week I’m writing about “The Garden of Earthly Delights” from a gardener’s perspective.

First, a summary of the book and the painting for which the book is named: Set in 1490 in the town of Den Bosch, an actual place in the Netherlands, the novel is a fictional account of the life of a real painter named Hieronymus “Jerome” Bosch who lived in the province of Brabant. Very little is known about Hieronymus Bosch, although his paintings are considered by some art historians as “the most brilliantly original and morally complex of all northern European religious painters.”

The novel centers on Bosch’s most famous and controversial painting called “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” a two-sided panel painting, or triptych, which is now exhibited at the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, Spain. It’s thought that Bosch created the painting between 1490 and 1510 when he was between 40 and 60 years old.

The exterior panels depict Bosch’s vision of the biblical account of God’s creation of the Earth after the addition of plants but before animals and humans. The interior panels are intended to be read from left to right. The first panel represents the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve, the center panel shows a crowded, fantastical garden in which humanity is seen turning away from God to pursue earthly pleasures, and the last panel depicts Hell as punishment for humanity’s moral and religious failings.

In the novel, Dodds depicts Bosch as a deeply religious man who believes God sends him visions after he drinks an elixir made from mandrake roots. The painter believes he must turn these visions into art that will warn others of the “transient pleasures of the flesh.” Meanwhile, Bosch’s neglected wife is having an affair with his best friend, and one of the town’s powerful religious leaders plots to ruin him for portraying the clergy as sinners.

I was thoroughly entertained by “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” and I learned about an interesting painting and painter I had never heard of before. After reading the book, I think gardeners are like Hieronymus Bosch in that we “paint” our vision of paradise with the plants we choose to grow and the designs we use to arrange them. Others may not agree with our Edenic imagination; however, gardens begin, and sometimes end, with an ability to envision what is possible in a particular growing space.

Gardener and writer Amos Bronson Alcott (Louisa May Alcott’s father) wrote on this subject more than 350 years after Hieronymus Bosch painted his “garden.” Today, the senior Alcott is best known for his involvement with a 19th century philosophical movement called transcendentalism, which held that God is found in nature and humanity.

Alcott wrote, “We associate gardens and orchards with the perfect condition of mankind. … [A garden] places man in his truest relations to the world in which he lives. And he who is insensible to these pleasures must lack some chord in the harp of humanity, worshipping … at some strange shrine.”

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. She is the founder of the Bard’s Garden in Central Point. Learn more at www.literarygardener.com, and email Rhonda at Rnowak39@gmail.com.