garden earthly delights
Detail from “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hiëronymus Bosch

Whither the power of the strawberry? A closer look at one of the most analyzed paintings in history may provide a clue or two. The artwork, of course, is the center panel of the famous triptych by Hiëronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights; it’s also part of the most comprehensive exhibition of the Dutch master’s work (timed with his fifth centenary), on view at Madrid’s Prado Museum through September.

The symbolism of that incongruously chaotic middle panel (it should be noted that Bosch is now widely considered the art world’s first Surrealist), has been forever debated. Does it depict the insanity of hell, or the pleasures of an eternally sybaritic life? And, alongside the discussion, the liberal use of fruit — in particular, berries — that sprouted from the artist’s imagination.

In 1605, the historian and poet José de Sigüenza wrote about the “short-lived taste earthly delights strawberryof the strawberry, and its scent that one barely appreciates before it has passed,” in his description of the ubiquitous fruits at the heart of the masterpiece. Many believe that the message of Earthly Delights was that humanity must push back against the temporal temptations of the flesh, amongst which the strawberry – with its metaphorical connections to sex and lust – could serve as a substitute for the apple of Adam and Eve.

It’s not coincidence that the unruly abandon that pervades the piece is mirrored in the fact that the strawberry is noteworthy for its tendency to grow uncontrollably. An oversized specimen (shown above) is seen hoisted in almost pagan adoration; if you look closely at the image shown at the top of this page, you’ll see one of the figures hugging a strawberry rather possessively, as if in fear of losing something highly cherished – reluctant to let go of the ephemeral joys of life and love.

Another detail, my favorite, is the one shown at bottom, of the owl perched with omniscient eyes as it observes the frolicsome proceedings. Another portentous symbol in an artwork already ripe with them (excuse the pun), the owl has long been viewed as representing learning and wisdom. I can’t help but think that his place in the tableau, along with the all-knowing gaze, foreshadows Shakespeare’s immortal lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

“Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

bosch strawberry
Bosch: The 5th Centenary Exhibition runs through September 11 at Madrid’s Prado Museum.