The Temptation of St Anthony

1510 – 1515. Oil on oak panel, 73 x 52.5 cm.

This panel originally had an arched top and included a more open landscape with less leafy trees. At an unknown date the work must have suffered damage that affected the pictorial surface, resulting in losses to the figure of Saint Anthony and the background. Possibly as a result of this, the surface was restored and some areas repainted. The most recent analyses undertaken by the Prado’s Technical Documentation Department and Laboratory confirm that the technique of this re-painting (which is visually distinguishable from Bosch’s original brushwork) is similar to the artist’s and was probably carried out in Flanders. Subsequently, in the nineteenth century, the work was changed to a rectangular format through the addition of pieces of oak at the corners. At that time the landscape was enlarged, thus altering still further the work’s appearance. Actually these additions have been covered over and the original arch-topped format can thus be appreciated.

In contrast to his other depictions of the saint, and in an extremely original manner, Bosch shows him here absorbed in his thoughts among the wilds of nature, which is evoked by the brilliantly depicted hollow tree trunk that shelters him. Anthony is not even holding his book, which is closed and hangs from his belt. Nothing distracts him from his inner concentration, and this is also true for his attribute, the pig with a bell on its ear lying at his feet and oblivious to the assault of the devil that is about to hit it with a mallet. To maintain the unity of space and time Bosch only represents Anthony once, in the centre of the composition and on a reduced scale in relation to the landscape, which he expands by using a high horizon line. Another original feature of this work is the fact that Bosch does not show the devils as attacking the saint. Also worth mentioning are the devils pouring water on a fire which has broken out on the rear side of the tree that shelters the saint. The fire was not visible prior to the restoration and can now only be discerned from the sparks and smoke. It undoubtedly refers to Saint Anthony’s fire.

“Black mass”

Woman with the Sacrament Cup
Bosch depicts here a witch whose cup is not the blood of Christ, but the alchemic elixir of life

Black, white and red shapes
They represent three phases of the same transformation of matter during the alchemical process.

A freak with an egg in his hands
This is a miscarriage, symbolizing an alchemical homunculus – a humanoid creature created by artificial means, in other words, a man from a test tube.

“Flight into Egypt”

Method of obtaining a philosopher’s stone


The Garden of Earthly Delights

The triptych is painted in oil on oak and is composed of a square middle panel flanked by two other oak rectangular wings that close over the center as shutters. The outer wings, when folded, show a grisaille painting of the earth during the biblical narrative of Creation. The three scenes of the inner triptych are probably (but not necessarily) intended to be read chronologically from left to right. The left panel depicts God presenting Eve to Adam, the central panel is a broad panorama of socially engaged nude figures, fantastical animals, oversized fruit and hybrid stone formations. The right panel is a hellscape and portrays the torments of damnation.

The Early Netherlandish painter’s artwork (c. 1490-1510) is a vision of sin and morality: and the devil is in the detail. As the art critic Alastair Sooke wrote in BBC Culture, The Garden of Earthly Delights has been called ‘probably the most famous scene of the underworld in all Western art’. If hell is other people, Bosch’s version involves people cavorting with owls, strawberries – and derrieres tattooed with musical scores.




Alongside the suffering, there is humour. In the central panel, we see naked people riding oversized birds including a robin, a duck and a woodpecker. Bosch might have been making a visual joke: according to the interactive tour, “the birds could also be taken as a double entendre. As well as being an obsolete plural form, the Dutch word ‘vogelen’ (vogel meaning bird) could refer to having sexual intercourse”.




Early descriptions of the triptych refer to it as the ‘strawberry painting’, and the fruit appears several times in the central panel. It allows Bosch to reference other forms of imagery: in one section, people pick apples from trees while a man offers a strawberry to a woman with a leering expression, a twist on biblical depictions of Eden.



Tree man

Hans Belting – who sees the painting as utopian rather than apocalyptic – believes that this figure is a self-portrait of Bosch. Art historian Reindert Falkenburg argues that the painter’s anthropomorphic images are ‘double’ or Gestalt, requiring an imaginative response by the viewer to see the veiled imagery. Ultimately, The Garden of Earthly Delights evades analysis. According to Falkenburg, it’s a work deliberately designed to resist interpretation; while Erwin Panofsky claims in Early Netherlandish Painting that “In spite of all the ingenious, erudite and in part extremely useful research devoted to the task of ‘decoding Jerome Bosch’, I cannot help feeling that the real secret of his magnificent nightmares and daydreams has still to be disclosed.


Torture, mutilation – and backgammon. One area of the painting’s third panel shows diabolical creatures stabbing a man in the back and impaling a heart on a sword, as well as dice and board games. The grotesque figures aren’t just inflicting pain; they’re gambling with their victims.


Metallica clip based on pictures of Bosch

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