Freedom in the Gardens

The last time I was in Spain I had the opportunity to see two paintings that I’d known about for a long time, but never seen in person.

The first one, I wasn’t looking for, but I could hardly avoid it, as it was on special exhibition at its home, El Prado.  It is The Garden of Earthly Delights, painted around the turn of the 16th century by the Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch.  The work is probably meant to be read from left to right, but I’ll take the panels out of order, to start.  

The central panel of this large triptych famously depicts a kind of phantasmagorical scene of men and women “cavorting with abandon,” surrounded by creatures real and imagined, some of whom are getting in on the fun.  Dozens upon dozens of nude figures in every conceivable grouping are enjoying themselves in ways that are erotically suggestive, but never quite explicit.  Over-sized birds and giant fish are involved, among other things.  The people are enjoying themselves on land, and in the water, and in a number of pavilions that look as though they could have been designed by Salvador Dalí.  The scene is clearly presented as an extension of the Garden of Eden.  But it is hard to say at first glance whether it is supposed to represent a perversion of paradise or a fulfillment of it.

To the right is an equally wild depiction of what must be the torments of hell, most of which are not suitable for description from a pulpit.  The background is dark.  Pain, injury, and molestation of all kinds are taking place.  And fires burn in a city from which hordes are fleeing.

from The Garden of Earthly Delights

from The Garden of Earthly Delights

The left-hand panel, which must be Eden, is much calmer and more sedate than the other parts of the work.  Only three figures occupy the scene, in contrast to the hundreds teeming in the other two sections.  Here Bosch has painted God presenting Eve to Adam.  God is portrayed as a young man, perhaps the pre-incarnate Christ, complete with blond hair.  He is robed in a flowing rose-colored gown, clasped at the neck with some sort of morse or brooch.  His bare toes are only just visible, peeking out from beneath his ample garment.  He is grasping Eve’s right wrist with his left hand, almost as if he is confirming that she has a pulse.

Eve is naked, with long golden tresses, her eyes modestly cast down, half-kneeling (like an Episcopalian) on a little hillock.  The divine grasp of her wrist allows her to extend her hand, opened, toward Adam.

Adam, also naked, is sitting on the ground on the other side of the Lord, supporting himself, quite naturally, with his right arm.  It’s hard to tell if his gaze is directed more toward the Lord or the woman; it would seem that he is trying to figure out what to make of this moment.

Adam is doing the most adorable thing, in a very large painting that includes almost nothing adorable.  As he sits there gazing up, he is extending his feet toward the Lord and reaching out to grab the hem of the Lord’s robe between the big toes of his two feet in a sort of playful way.  You can barely see that Adam’s left foot has come into contact with God’s right foot beneath the fabric of his gown.  It is a delightfully childish gesture, in which the first man seems to be grasping for the security of his creator, faced with the recognition that creation is not all about him.

Of the two first humans, Adam and Eve, one of them is clearly more ready than the other for what lies ahead.

Two last details about this section of the painting.  God’s right hand is raised in blessing.  And his gaze is directed unambiguously toward the viewer.



The second painting I saw was the great scene of destruction made by Picasso on his enormous canvas, Guernica.  All in black and white and greys, the painting has been called the “emblem for all the devastating tragedies of modern society.” *

If Bosch’s triptych is intended to be read from left to right, from paradise to perdition, then I suppose you can think of Guernica as an extension of the right-hand panel’s vision of the torments of hell.  In this case, hell on earth.  A mother wails with grief as she carries the body of her dead child in her arms.  A soldier lies dismembered on the ground.  Another woman reaches to the heavens as her home burns around her.  A horse, impaled, brays its death throes.  Another woman strains on one knee to make her escape.  All is chaos and terror, fire and blood.  And a divine eye looks down and sees it all.

Shift gears for a moment to the passage from Galatians in which we heard St. Paul tell us that “for freedom Christ has set us free.”  And then we heard him go on in a highly dualistic way about the contrast between the works of the flesh and the fruits of the spirit.

Lovely though it is to hear of the fruits of the spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control,” we are less self-conscious, I think, than people used to be about the works of the flesh: “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.”  Indeed, it is clear which set of behaviors is predominant in the public sphere in America these days.

In many ways, it is just this kind of dualistic thinking that so many modern people have rejected, finding it moralizing and judgy.  And since the church is often characterized as nothing more than a hotbed of hypocrisy, and St. Paul is thought to have been in need of a bit of therapy, it has become almost reflexive to respond to this teaching with that contemporary expression of timeless complaint: You’re not the boss of me!  Which is why it is so helpful to be able to stand in front of paintings like The Garden of Earthly delights and Guernica, and let God speak to us there.  And I hope you will go and look at these images later on.

It’s helpful for me not to begin in the beginning, and, instead, to read these paintings backward, from right to left (like Hebrew), beginning with Guernica, painted in 1937 in both the aftermath and on the brink of war.  The scene includes that crucial element that is missing completely from Bosch’s painting: a child.  Rather, the body of a child: the collateral damage of our grown up ways.  The torments of Bosch’s hell seem almost quaint once you have paused at the left hand edge of Picasso’s painting, where the child’s mother cries out in despair.  Nevertheless, those torments are perverse, imaginative, and plentiful.

Continuing past to the left, we face the large panel depicting the Garden of Earthly Delights.  It’s a little like a billboard for a high-end swingers’ resort in the Poconos.  Part of the great value of the painting is the ambiguity of this scene.  Is this the kind of freedom God will permit in a paradise regained?  Or is it nothing more than our own perversion of the freedom God gave us in Eden?  The artist has not made his own judgment clear, and scholars are a bit divided on the question.

But keep reading backwards, to get back to the Garden of Eden, where the Lord of Life is giving us our freedom.  Put aside for a moment the patriarchal and cis-gendered normative assumptions of the image (it was the turn of the 16th century, after all).  What the painting shows is God making us happy and free.  All three of the figures remain physically connected.  Eve is connected because the divine hand has not yet let go of her.  And Adam is connected because he still reaches out with his big toes to grasp his Lord, maybe knowing that he is not ready to handle so much freedom, so much happiness.  You are free to see yourself in either of these two persons, I suppose.

“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.  For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  If, however, you you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”  Complicated though living the Christian life may sometimes be, sometimes it is not so complicated at all.  Paul, taking up Jesus’ teaching, tries, actually, to make it simple: “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

But, of course, we get caught up when we hear him say “what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other.”  And so we keep walking the wrong way through the freedom God has given us: leaving paradise for the gardens of whatever earthly delights we choose, and heading, over and over again into warfare, tragedy, injustice, and corruption.

Most likely, we don’t believe it when we hear Paul say that for freedom Christ has set us free.  Because we have spent our lifetimes walking away from freedom toward Guernica, certain that warfare and misery are someone else’s fault, and that our demand for cheap TVs, bananas, and beef (just to choose a few things) has nothing to do with it.

If the church sometimes seems old fashioned, retrograde, and stuck in the mud, it may be because we can also see the wisdom in walking the other way toward freedom, and toward a memory of a time when we could offer ourselves with open hands to one another, but still reach out for God with our toes, and stay connected both to God and to one another.  That was paradise.  That was freedom.  What was there before us that we couldn’t do?!?

The astonishing gift of Christ’s ministry is to open again the way to freedom; to promise that the gates of paradise are not locked to us; and to bring us again into that lovely, simple, physical connection to our Lord, who, on the one hand hasn’t let go of us yet, and on the other, is perfectly happy to let us reach out and grab him with our toes.

Look, you can call it a Garden of Earthly Delights, but if all it brings is fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, then what good is it to us?  Don’t we see exactly what it looks like when that garden gets overgrown?

When we turn around and move the other way toward freedom, we soon find that Christ has been looking for us, looking at us, all along, and that his hand has been raised in blessing - a blessing meant for us - all along.  And we find that we are confronted by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.

Considering the world we live in now, I think I’d like to walk that way toward freedom; wouldn’t you?  

In fact, I feel as though I’d like to sit down on the ground, take off my shoes and socks, and reach with my toes to see if I can’t catch the hem of Christ’s garment between my toes… and find his feet there, and rejoice that we are still connected!  And I believe we always will be!  Thanks be to God!

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
30 June 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

*Paloma Esteban Leal, for the Museo Reina Sofia

Posted on June 30, 2019 .