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The Garden of Earthly Delights Triptych
The Garden of Earthly Delights Triptych by Hieronymous BoschCourtesy of ©Museo Nacional del Prado

How a 16th Century painting became the artwork for our cursed internet-era

The chaotic nature of the ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ resonates to a world in turmoil, half a millennia after its creation

In the corner of the central panel of the “Garden of Earthly Delights”, a 16th Century triptych masterpiece painted by Flemish artist Hieronymous Bosch, a man’s face pokes out of a transparent tube. Looking back at him is a rat. His body sits inside a pink ball, while a clear orb balances on top of him. Inside, a naked couple awkwardly embrace while a giant owl rests behind them. A duck bobs along in the background and a tiny man carries a jumbo-sized blueberry.

It is this scene, painted over 500 years ago, which recently made the rounds on Twitter. Reimagined as a popular meme format which went viral last summer, the tweet read, “What if we kissed inside the rat tube bubble flower in the garden of earthly delights 😫😫😫”. 

To provide some context, “The Garden of Earthly Delights” is a chaotic, trippy masterpiece. Depicting everything from naked bodies carrying oversized fruit, to a monocle-wearing-man-eating-bird, the artwork is loaded with minute details and packed with symbolism.

The painting, like many other works created by Northern Renaissance artists of the time, is deeply religious and was intended to be a lesson in the dangers of indulging in sin. Created at a time when a social, political, and economic shift was taking place throughout Europe due to the advent of Capitalism, the painting presents to us the fate of humanity consumed by passion and pleasure, with its three sections depicting, Heaven, Earth, and Hell, 

But despite its religious context, the artwork has found a new lease of life, with an unsuspecting audience. 

Inspiring contemporary visionaries from Raf Simons to Tim Walker, Bosch has even entered our modern lexicon, with the word ‘boschian’ used to describe everything from Kim Kardashian meeting Trump at the White House to former MP Ed Balls’ stint on Strictly Come Dancing. Essentially, Bosch has become short-hand for all things that feel unnervingly surreal. 

It, therefore, comes as no surprise that the “Garden of Earthly Delights” has found a home in the increasingly bizarre landscape that is the internet. There are memes dedicated to it and the artwork even has its own Twitter page which shares tiny vignettes of the painting daily. Entitled @boschbot, the account recently saw one of its tweets go viral after a user spotted a Donald Trump look-alike within the piece. The segment sees a naked man, who was slightly overweight in stature, notably orange in complexion, and mounting a fish… reverse cowboy style.

But type the painting’s name elsewhere into Twitter and you will find yourself amongst people using the artwork to illustrate the strangely surreal aspects of the mundane reality of every day. From one Twitter user using the piece to convey what it is like to date in New York, to another user writing “my brother did not buy my argument that reality TV conveys the same ‘chaotic vision of humanism’ as Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights”,” someone else simply wrote, “My mentality at the moment is this scene from ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’”. 

Whatever it is, Bosch and his “Garden of Earthly Delights” have struck a chord with a generation who have come to use memes as a coping mechanism for the bizarre, mostly depressing, state of the world. 

Fitting into a very specific time and place on the internet, the painting’s chaotic and dark energy doesn’t feel too dissimilar to the ‘cursed images’ which became increasingly popular over the latter half of the 2010s.

Typically depicting something like a raw chicken lying in the middle of the road, a frog carrying an onion, or a Furby smoking a cigarette, cursed images have reached a strange prevalence within our society, and although they may appear entirely meaningless (try explaining to your parents why a picture of a horse standing in the middle of someone's living room is funny), they nonetheless feel fundamentally important.

Presented to you with an entire lack of context, cursed images immediately evoke the question ‘why?’. Why is there a raw chicken in the middle of that road? Why is that Furby smoking a cigarette? Essentially, they don’t feel real, even though we are led to believe they are. And at a time in history when Australia is on fire, a Tory government is in power, and Grimes is carrying Elon Musk’s baby (?), the current state of the world doesn't feel all that dissimilar to the cursed images we share online.

And it is within the small details of the “Garden of Earthly Delights” where this idea seems to resonate most, with tiny cursed images of its own dotted throughout. From a man whose body resembles a hollowed egg supported on tree stumps to a small fleshy figure carrying an oversized oyster shell with two little human feet poking out, the nonsensical aesthetics of Bosch’s painting prescribe to the same senseless characteristics found in cursed images. 

But, much like cursed images, the “Garden of Earthly Delights’” appeal goes far beyond its aesthetic. Bosch painted the influential piece during the initial growth of capitalism in Europe. The artwork captured people’s fears, relating to human sins, such as greed, along with commenting on the political upheavals of the day. It was a warning against corruption, painted for all to understand. 

And despite being created half a millennia ago, its message still rings true today, resonating with a world which has continued to indulge in earthly pleasures, and now, in the words of Greta Thunberg, sees its house on fire. Capitalism has entered new stages of domination where the inequality gaps seem to widen almost daily. Political corruption is as predictable as anything, as we witness a party, who has consistently fucked over its electorate, experience more power than it has since the 1980s. Overall, Bosch has and continues to speak to a world in peril, allowing for the “Garden of Earthly Delights” to find its home in our very own modern-day hellscape, the internet.