Posts and Popularity

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I don’t always blog, but when I do, I write the whole thing minutes before it’s due. And so here I am, sitting and thinking about what to write, and for the life of me I can’t think of a thing.

Then it occurred to me to check back over what my most popular posts have been in the past, to see if there’s any inspiration to be had. And something interesting (to me, anyway), showed up. I’ve had two posts featured by WordPress, so naturally they’ve been the most popular overall, but ignoring those, there’s one post that’s been popular ever since I first published it nearly four years ago. Back in 2012, I was experimenting with different blog topics, and one theme I had running for a while was something called Tales of Despair. I would try to write weekly about a work of art, music or story that was deeply invested in darkness and despair, and one week I chose to write about Hieronymus Bosch’s famous painting, Garden of Earthly Delights.

The Garden of Earthly Delights Low Resolution

I wrote a pretty lengthy piece on the various pieces of the painting, focusing on some of the more bizarre details, and ultimately centering on the ‘hell’ portion of the work. It wasn’t terribly popular on publication, garnering only a few hits and likes. In fact, to this day I still only have eight likes for the article.

However, it’s the most-viewed post I’ve ever written, short of the two featured posts I mentioned before. Since September 2012, it’s had over 1,000 hits; that’s roughly a hit a day, every day, for four years. It consistently shows up in my weekly reports as one of the most popular posts that week. The funny thing is, I can’t quite understand why. If I search ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ on Google I don’t get anything about my post; if I search images, I equally get nothing.

So a bit of a mystery remains around this one: why has it been so consistently popular for over four years? Not one of my other posts comes even close—the next most popular is (oddly enough) another Tales of Despair article about Pieter Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death, at roughly half the hits.

What do you think? Was it really a good article? Is it because of the snippets of images in the article? Why is everyone so interested in the Garden of Earthly Delights?

Tales of Despair: Garden of Hell

Some time ago, I wrote about discovering Pieter Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death; a vast, melancholic landscape of horror, with the dead come back to drag the living down to hell. He portrays a hopelessness in death – there is no escape: peasant and king, saints and sinners, all succumb.

As I learned about Bruegel‘s fascination with hell, it brought my attention to the one who significantly influenced his style and subject matter: Hieronymus Bosch. From an earlier generation (Hieronymus died around 1516; Pieter wasn’t born until 1525), he was born and raised in the Netherlands to a family of artists: his father and four uncles were all painters, as their father had been also. In this early stage of the European Renaissance, the Netherlands appeared to be more tolerant of the representation of death, demons and hell – with their frankly grotesque, disturbing and often mind-bending caricatures of men and devils, it is easy to imagine his work denounced as heresy, or worse, the influence of the devil himself.

Though there is no reason to believe his childhood was less than ideal, a great fire in his home town when he was but a boy laid waste to thousands of homes. One can only imagine the terror and devastation of a fifteenth-century village, flames spreading from roof to roof, as men valiantly throw water from buckets onto the ever-blackening homes. Caught in the living hell, thousands must have perished, screaming and burned alive. And when all was over, the horror of stepping through the smoldering ruins, blackened and charred bones lying side by side with the beams of houses. From this, it is suddenly easier to imagine the influence for his work.

One of his best-known works today is the seminal Garden of Earthly Delights (doom metal band Cathedral pay wonderful homage on their album, The Garden of Unearthly Delights). It is a monumental piece, a staggering seven feet high and thirteen feet across, oil painted on wood, with hinges that allow it to be folded closed. Thus separated into three parts, Hieronymus dedicated each third to depicting a stage of mankind’s journey from conception to corruption to death. The left-most panel – the simplest, in terms of content – is dedicated to the garden of Eden, replete with newly-made animals, luscious lakes and fields, and azure mountains in the far distance. Orchards and palm trees sway (did they have palm trees in the Netherlands?), and in the foreground, Adam sits, watching as God presents Eve to him, new and pure and virgin.

Adam, Eve and God in Eden.

Even here, the surreal nature of his work can be seen; while some animals are recognizable, others appear as odd or deformed creatures, including three-headed lizards, deformed snakes, and some creatures that are beyond recognition.

Bizarre and distorted creatures, even here in Eden.

The central panel, twice the width of the side panels, is given over to – perhaps – paradise. It is a busy scene, with nude folk cavorting endlessly far into the distance. Here already, the scene is already becoming unsettling; though at first it appears that the beauty of Eden has grown to accommodate the growth of man, there are signs that not all is well.

The central pane – the defiling of paradise.

Not a man or woman can be seen toiling or working, and in their play, there show the signs of corruption, sin and vice. On the left of this panel there are depictions of good; in the far distance, groups of people can be seen entering upon paradise, among the unadulterated animals we know so well. A couple sit side-by-side on a giant pink sculpture, and a man even flies high above the world on the back of a griffin, holding aloft a branch of peace.

The sinless entering paradise – soon to be corrupted.

Yet as we move along, things begin to run afoul; men have begun to abuse their power over the beasts, riding them for their own pleasures. At the same time, their very pleasures become more bestial, as the eat from the beaks of birds, and appear even to seek congress with fish.

Um…is that what it looks like?

And of course, in the far right the ultimate symbol of sin: man taking the forbidden fruit.

The final, ultimate sin.

And so we enter the depths of hell, and it is here where Hieronymus’ true talent – and most bizarre and terrifying imaginations – is revealed. From severed feet to living consumption to grotesque violations, every detail is intended to shock and horrify.

Horror in the bowels of hell – all are equal in torment.

In one corner, a man makes love to a pig, while behind him misers defecate money into a cesspit in which further sinners can be seen drowning. Beside them, a hideous demon gropes an unconscious woman, while a donkey looks on.

Lust and avarice – tortured by their sins.

Elsewhere, musicians are impaled upon their own instruments, and tormented by the demonic music now passing through their ears.

Even the musicians are not spared.

In the center of the panel, a bisected giant forms the setting for the damnation of gluttons and soldiers alike; men are led into a fiery cavern to feast upon embers and ash, below whom tortured souls drown below the frozen waters. To their right, demons impale, imprison and feast upon soldiers – those who would kill for glory.

The fates of gluttons and killers.

But it is at the top of this panel, in the darkest and most frightening place imaginable, that the true despair of hell is shown. Lost in dark fog and shadows, the fires of hell burn high, and men are whipped, burned and massacred. Torn limb from limb, they are thrown into rivers or cast into flames, and always new sinners fall from the world above.

The distant and terrifying depths of hell.

Most heartbreaking and tormented, though, of all this, is a tiny detail at the absolute height of hell: behind the terrible black cliffs, the light of salvation glows – forever unattainable. Despite this, a single, solitary man braves the flames and the heights, desperately seeking redemption. And above him, an angel plummets from heaven.

Unattainable salvation.

Tales of Despair: The Triumph of Death

I am no student of art, and I know little of the medium and its history. However, I came across this painting some years ago, and even to my untrained eye it is exceptional for its time.

Pieter Bruegel (1525 – 1569) was a Flemish painter at the height of the Renaissance, when secular art began to be accepted in European culture, and people suddenly started painting people and fish, and not just god. Bruegel in particular has become renown for his paintings of everyday life, depicting peasants, hunters and even beggars, working hard to capture the scenes all around him (a kind of 16th-century George Bellows). In many of his works, however, he allowed fantasy to creep into the scenes, such as Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.

Detail showing a king, all his riches powerless to slow the advance of time, and the coming of his death.

Still, none of his paintings (including Dull Gret) come nearly as close to the dark and twisted nature of The Triumph of Death. This is a massive work – the original is some five feet across – and it portrays hundreds of figures, fallen upon by an army of death. There is too much here to even begin to go into, so complex is the entire painting, but there are some points within it that genuinely stand out to me.

Overall, it seems painting seems to emphasize death as the lord of all – kings and peasants as one fall victim to its clutches. In one corner, a great king, cape in ruins, cannot prevent a grinning skeleton from pillaging his gold. As a reminder of his despair, a second skeleton holds up an hourglass, driving home the fact that he will not long last in this world.

Detail showing a man and woman playing music, unaware of death mocking them behind; a moment of black humor in an otherwise bleak work.

The detail of the agony and despair in this painting is astonishing, and excruciating; every inch of canvas is covered by death. Even where there are people yet alive, death is yet hounding them. In one small detail, a man, stripped and naked, seeks refuge from the horror by hiding under the roots of a tree. It is, of course, futile – a spear protrudes from his back. In another, a man fleeing desperately, is set upon by the starved hounds of hell, while a skeleton looks on nonchalantly, waiting as they take down their prey. In particular, though, I am drawn to a small detail that shows two people – perhaps the only people in the entire painting – who seem unaware, or unaffected, by the death and torture around them. The man is playing a lute; the woman is singing from a songbook with him. The man looks worried, as though he perhaps should be thinking about something other than their music, but the woman rests a reassuring hand on his shoulder, and carries a calming expression, as though music is untouchable by death. In an inspired moment of irony, Bruegel adds a skeleton, hiding behind them, accompanying them both on the fiddle.

Church – and god – are no escape for the coming of death.

Though the Renaissance was, of course, a time of artistic awakening, religion was nonetheless and inescapable and fundamental part of culture, and every person’s life. Prayer, and the hope of an afterlife, was often the only consolation for peasants who slaved for a lord, starved, and grew ill with terrible disease. For Bruegel, however, even the church is unable to give deliverance from death; in what may have been nearly heretical at the time, he depicts the skeleton army invading the house of god, desecrating its windows, drowning people in its river, and mockingly calling the ring of silver trumpets. To the right, a very large portion of the canvas is given to showing the skeletons herding people in droves into a cross-embossed box, while their armies await on either side, holding shields bearing crucifixes. It is as though Bruegel was verily denouncing religion itself as false hope of life.

The scene is a grim twist on the artist’s nature and style. Whilst many of his works depict ordinary scenes of peasant life, here he takes a scene from almost every class imaginable, and treats them to the same horror and finality. The princes and the poor, the pious and the sinners, all succumb alike. In the distance, the fires of hell glow bright, while skeletons ring a great funeral bell. Ships burn on the horizon, and the earth is barren of all growth. The only life that seems to persist are the crows, likened as always to companions of death.

In Bruegel’s eye, death spares no one, and nothing. By the river, a large whale or dolphin lies butchered, and in the distance, skeletons hack at the few remaining trees. However, the true depth of the artist’s horror, and the epitome of death’s cruelty, is in a small detail at the bottom of the painting. Prostrate, a mother lies dying, her bundled infant dead in her arms. The true ghastliness of this scene, though, and the terrible truth of death, is the skeletal hound of hell, feasting on the dead child’s flesh.