The Garden of Earthly Delights

The Garden of Earthly Delights.” In Found Footage & Collage Films: Selected Works, edited by César Ustarroz (Found Footage Magazine, 2021), 66-9. 

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights.

Inspired by the structure and visual motifs in Hieronymus Bosch’s enigmatic 16th century triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, Michael Fleming’s “moving painting” is an intricately handcrafted collage film that utilizes manipulated 35mm and 8mm found footage. Given the brevity of this article, I intend to paint a comparison of these two works using relatively broad strokes. For the interpretation of Bosch, I will mainly be utilizing the arguments presented by Nicholas Baum in the 1980 BBC documentary The Mysteries of Hieronymus Bosch. In the documentary, Baum uses historical evidence to analyze Bosch’s paintings and to demonstrate that Bosch was an Orthodox Catholic, a member of the Brotherhood of Our Lady,1 and followed the teachings of the Brethren of the Common Life. 

The Garden of Earthly Delights is the modern title attributed to Bosch’s painting, and is in reference to the central panel, which is surrounded by a depiction of the Garden of Eden and Hell. The central section depicts people in the nude as they succumb to various earthly indulgences. Baum interprets this scene as the time of resurrection just before the Last Judgment, while others have interpreted it as the time before the Flood.2 Similarly, Fleming’s film is composed of three sections illustrating paradise, lust and Hell through found footage. In contrast to Bosch, Fleming’s title is simply The Garden of Delight, losing its “earthly”-ness. Bosch was a moralist and interested in spiritual transcendence. His paintings, although depicting the grotesque, were attempts to preach the teachings of the Common Life and to warn against indulging in our base impulses and evil. While it is safe to assume that Fleming is not an Orthodox Catholic (at least not in the medieval sense), what is the contemporary evil that Fleming is attempting to warn others against? In a world where the “unearthly” doesn’t exist, the Seven Deadly Sins have been replaced by one great Sin: capitalist realism; a world in which humans are reduced to consumers and are forced to question whether their desires are even their own or if they have been implanted by the media they digest. 

In Bosch’s paintings, he does not pity the sinner, he shows contempt for them and their spiritual corruption. In spite of this, he seems to revel in the debauchery, which portrays, in great detail, a vast array of erotic, sadomasochist, and sinful activities. It is clear Fleming takes great pleasure in the trashy images he manipulates while still revealing the violence of the cinematic apparatus. In the film, Fleming uses crude, visual sexual puns and associative montage to reveal the ideology hidden within the original images. As Bosch condemns the sins made against God, Fleming condemns the sins made against cinema.

In the central panel of Bosch’s painting, people temporarily lose themselves in bodily pleasures, while in the panel to the right they eternally suffer. Similarly, what starts as vanity, a kiss, and sensual lovemaking in the second section of Fleming’s film transforms into blind lust with the strike of a match. In the last section of the film, pornographic images are juxtaposed with meat and surrounded by images of the world burning. 

In order to look past the debauchery in Bosch’s paintings, it is worth examining the figure of St. Anthony the Great, depicted in the artist’s The Temptation of St. Anthony. This is the pious figure with whom Bosch wishes to identify. Surrounded by sin, temptation and corruption, St. Anthony kneels in contemplation facing a miniature figure of the crucifixion of Christ. He denies himself worldly pleasures for eternal happiness. Fleming’s film also offers a form of transcendence. The end of the film features famous actress Preity Zinta (from the 2004 Bollywood classic Veer-Zaara) gleefully frolicking through images of destruction and vice. Zinta first appears in the opening section of the film, but now, like Bosch with St. Anthony, she is the figure with whom Fleming identifies. Her dancing through these images serves as a reminder that the future is up for grabs, that even stone idols are subject to change and transformation. These past images are readily available for our manipulation, and it is from these sources that we might be able to break free from the hellish ideologies they reinforce. 

  1. Also known as the Brotherhood of the Swan. []
  2. In “Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’: A Progress Report,” E. H. Gombrich, using an earlier title for the work, argues that the central panel depicts the world before the Flood. He argues, “what constituted the real sin of man before the Flood was the absence of a sense of sin. People indulged in ‘eating, drinking, marrying and giving in marriage’ without a thought of the judgement that awaited the indulgent in that Hell where the very instruments of pleasure are turned into tools of torture.” []