The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch, right panel- apocalypse
the Prado, Madrid
I found it not appalling, but riveting; it proposed situations, creatures, and activities that were both impossible, and at the same time absolutely compelling and perhaps even inevitable. By this time, I had already been to the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen; and so I was aware of the fact that there is something going on on this planet that we do not understand at all, and that it had horrifying and impossible aspects. This painting seem to bring all of that home in an objective — yet, yes—highly personal manner. I stood in front of it for several hours, a moment that ultimately became family legend.
Why, after giving us a divinely inspired canvas in a left and center panel that, while it has its dark undertones, expresses beauty, joy, sensuality, and a tranquil and extraordinarily beautiful, even magnificent, world and cosmos, does Bosch give us a right-hand panel straight from hell?
The idiot's version of this painting argues that all it is is a depiction of the torments that await us in hell; yet there is much more going on here. Taken as a part of the comprehensive cosmology of the intersection of Divine Personhood with the material world, this panel represents an inevitable and necessary force in the universe, the one that tears everything down, as opposed to the force that creates it. It is an absolute consequence of material manifestation, not an engine of punishment for the sinful. But it is, in fact, an engine — and here, in this panel, we encounter all of the machinery, the engines, the insignia and devices, that mankind is familiar with, because the machine, the part that grinds everything down, is inexorable, and arises as a consequence of manifestation itself.
All of the events that seem horrifying are ordinary; when I say ordinary, I mean they are part of the universal order, and one can't get rid of them. It's true that in our own case they are inextricably intertwined with our fallen nature and a lack of self-awareness; yet, taken as a whole, this destructive force, this darkness, is at the heart of all personhood and does represent that which needs to take apart everything that is created.
In another way, the panel illustrates my ongoing proposition that the bad is the servant of the good. We cannot recognize the good without a bad that it contrasts to, and this painting would never be the same painting if it did not have this right hand side — which is, viewed from the perspective of Bosch himself, who lurks as the egg/man in the background of this panel, the left hand, or sinister, side of this scene we are viewing.
Just as the right-hand panel is ingeniously turned upside down in its perspective — the highest part of "hell" is at the foreground of the painting, with the lowest part in the background, whereas the other two panels function in the opposite way — the viewer, if he is willing to adopt Hieronymus Bosch's perspective — the inner perspective — discovers that God is on the right-hand side, and hell is on the left. Personhood – the central panel — exists in this tense space between the two, larger than either one of them, in the sense that it is an embodiment, whereas the right and the left panels are concepts, or, the place where the divine emanates (left panel, to the viewer) and the place to which it returns (right panel.)
It's no accident that this emergence, movement through manifested creation (central panel) and return into the fires of destruction recapitulates not only both the action of creation of the universe and its eventual destruction through entropy, but also the path of birth through death, and all eternal cosmological cycles of creation and destruction.
Bosch, in creating a cosmology, expressed it comprehensively, and he wrote it visually in very personal terms, so that we understand it is not only our own inner state that participates in these cycles — it is the entire cosmos itself.