Welcome to the Garden of Earthly Delights!

(And other fleeting thoughts at Aisle no. 14)

By Swapnil Singh


Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490-1500).

When Hieronymus Bosch (1415-1516) revealed his triptych masterpiece, ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’, that caused a furore in European high society in the fifteenth century, little did he know how remarkably relevant it would continue to be. The categories are numerous: a panorama of desire, pleasure, chaos, sin, fantasy, and dream. Yet, they only scratch the surface of the multi-dimensional perspective that this body of work is capable of inspiring. The art attacks one like a sensual explosion, all at once and at the same time, needing slow unravelling. Perhaps that is why the work leaves the viewer in a state of exhilarating paralysis, the restless eyes running in a thousand directions and the mind trying to catch up. Beware its onslaught upon the senses! It is not for the faint-hearted!

Exterior doors of The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490-1500). Hieronymus Bosch.

In the chaotic Boschian Garden, everything happens all at once, yet nothing seems real. The entire dream sequence that Bosch brushed through the canvas alludes to the creation of Earth, contained in an orb. Orb, shell, bubble! There we go! but where’s the fun in that? We must give it more! We must make it chaotic! We must make it disastrous! Beautiful! So if a man is a bubble, in a drop of pain and pleasure, how does love find its rightful place here? What comes to your mind when asked to place love and bubbles together? What would’ve Bosch conveyed through his Garden? Are these thoughts too heavy for a Sunday afternoon while waiting in the billing line at the grocery store? 

I was deeply absorbed in some sort of scattered internal monologue. I was trying my best to provide my own interpretation to this Boschian delight, a herculean task that I took upon myself, well aware that it has already been done countless times.

The cashier called for my attention and saved me from imploding under the weight of my own crisscrossing thoughts. But why should I be the only one suffering? So, I decided to trouble the fellow Sunday-afternoon-grocery-shopping-enthusiasts.

Central panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights.

“So, what do you think of love and bubbles? What comes to your mind?” I turned and asked. This lady gave me a look that without any doubt translated to Is she right in her head? Fair enough. Before she could ask me to politely move away and get done with my billing, I heard someone in the background saying, “I love bubble butts!” Oh boy, super! I immediately thought of Kim Kardashian and how I had seen a thousand analyses on the notion of attractiveness, physical desirability and glamour centred around the phenomenon that is Kim. An idea of body image propagated as an epitome of beauty, a hyperreal portrayal of unattainable standards. Had Bosch been alive and painted the Garden today, it would’ve been in Beverly Hills, the official capital of bubble butts. 

And then the inertia broke, and someone from the closest aisle who perhaps was eavesdropping quipped in a melancholic tone, “delusion”. The boundary between love and delusion is fuzzy; they are not as separable as one might imagine. It manifests in different ways in love and romance. Sometimes, it is necessary for love’s continued sustenance, for life would be boring and uncreative without fantasy. But this withdrawal into fantasy might become an isolated event, leading to loss of reality—living in a bubble. As they say, love dies, but delusion persists.

Can a bubble also be a shell? When the bubble of love transforms into a shell, it begets violence as the escape becomes impossible. Bubbles are meant to burst, but they harden into an unbreakable and inescapable shell when they don’t. Bursting bubbles can be a liberating experience, almost like a rite of passage in the life cycle of romantic love. Staying forever cocooned in this shell is tantamount to violence.

“A short-lived, ephemeral bliss”, a woman picking up a can of orange juice from the counter remarked. A bubble expands to its largest volume, right before it bursts and disappears into thin air. The experience of love, in all its different forms, reaches its highest and most potent point right before it all goes away, just like a bubble about to pop. The short-lived bliss that one carries in one’s mind and heart, coming back in waves of nostalgia, is all that is left to account for. Does that make it unreal? Does that make the pursuit of love futile? I pondered.

“A rainbow!” “Bubbly Chocolate.” “Bittersweet.” “Bitter and sweet.” At this point I could almost see speech bubbles hanging over the stretch of the aisle.

Collecting the responses, I realised how we all came together for a creative experiment, however reluctantly, in the grocery aisle (have I emphasised it enough yet?). Unknowingly, the participants provided me brilliant ideas to decipher the ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’. This brief interaction between strangers in the grocery store became the modern-day rendition of the Garden, where bills are due and a contagion rampant. And yet, we collectively experienced a delicate bubble of warmth around us, just like the painting! 

Thus, it wasn’t so bad when the bubble burst.

“Ma’am, do you need a bag?”


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