This is the fifth post in a series of posts exploring art, literature and numbers in Fifty Shades of Grey. If you have not, I encourage you to go back and read the first post about the connection of all of these, second post where we explore the outside of the Garden of Earthly Delights, in the third post we explored the opening of the triptych, and in the fourth post the left panel. In this post we’ll dive deeply into the middle panel.
The true Garden of Earthly Delights, the middle panel of the triptych, is overcrowded and full to capacity with symbolism – some of it mentioned already in the discussion of the left panel. I can only touch upon some ideas that find themselves reflected in Fifty Shades of Grey. It depicts a landscape that continues without interruption from the left panel. In it hundreds of nude figures peacefully, naïvely, and innocently and in pure joy celebrate their sexuality and life at one with nature. At least that is the way of looking at it as soon as you leave the whole idea of lust = sin behind. The people are all over the place between natural ponds, organic figures of stone and/ or grown matter, fantastic and real animals and fruit of all sizes, some even larger than the people.
Towards the center of the panel a group of 31 women sit in a pool, some of them seem quite bored. They are surrounded by about 100 men performing stunts while riding fancy animals in an endless, very grotesque, circular caravan.
Towards the very top, four groups of figures and creatures are shown in flight. They represent eternity, the elimination of the duality of sexes and the freedom found in fantasy while connecting what is above with what is below – the traditional motto of alchemy.
The theme of being one with nature is one that connects Bosch with Hardy. There will hopefully be a separate, more in deepth discussion of this in a Hardy themed article, but to bring it up here briefly: It is argued that Hardy’s Tess is the personification of nature, a natural goddess, and a symbol for the joy of pure and unadulterated nature. Technology on the other hand is frequently described by Hardy with terms from hell.
In Fifty Shades of Grey, Ana is the one that is connected with nature and who despises tools of modern technology. Even her car is a Beetle and an old one at that. This is curious because when you look at Bosch, it is Christian who seems to mean to bring Ana back into the pure joys of nature of the middle panel while in terms of Hardy he is the ultimate consumer, the technology lover with mean machines straight from hell.
But is this the real discrepancy? Does Christian really mean (and we are in Fifty Shades of Grey and not Darker or even Freed) to take Ana into the Garden of Earthly Delights? Or does he mean to take her into a disguised and maybe twisted version of religious norms of conduct, of how women have to behave and how men have to dominate and rule? Isn’t Ana’s idea of delight, that the Red Room of Pain can bring pleasure without punishments and aggressive postures, much closer to the Garden of Earthly Delights and thus nature? The Madonnas that will come up in the second book play a role in answering this question.
Meanwhile, let’s get back to this circle of men producing themselves in front of the women in the pond. Moralists in Bosch’s time believed that it was a woman’s temptation that drew men into a life of lechery and sin. The typical depiction of this theme in the contemporary art was that of a woman surrounded by several, usually lusting men. Bosch’s depiction of the endless caravan of men making a spectacle of themselves could almost count as mockery of the usual theme. But the fact that a woman could be the reason for Christian’s ‘unusual’ behavior and deviant sexual taste does cross Ana’s mind frequently. What role did Elena and her abuse of Christian play? Did Elena lure Christian into a sinful life? Or was it nature?
The theme of flying can easily be found in Fifty Shades. And if you include the catamaran, which is like flying on the sea and thus quite equivalent to the sailing fish with a knight (image above) we have four different flying machines in the books that Christian uses with Ana. As mentioned, in the painting they represent eternity and freedom. In the books the helicopter accident reminds every one of the finality of life. And then there is Ana and Christian’s membership in the sky high club which is like the unification of the sun king and the moon queen in alchemy.
Last but not least the dressed man. It is said that this is Machiavelli. Machiavelli was a contemporary of Bosch and his works were very popular at Bosch’s time, especially a book called The Prince that was notorious and widely read because Machiavelli seemed to be endorsing behavior often deemed as evil and immoral. The central question of the book was: Is it better for a king to be loved or feared and Machiavelli seemed to endorse fear as the way to go. Because of this the term Machiavellian is often associated with deceit, deviousness, ambition, and brutality. These are terms used by some to describe Christian.
There is even a scene in Fifty Shades of Grey, the day that Ana first uses the code to the Escala garage, that reminds of the lonely dressed man in the happy garden. It is the moment when Ana returns with Dr. Green from her examination and she thinks that Christian looks serene. Christian reads surrounded by art and music. All three things are pleasures, kind of escapes and for many the symbol for paradise on earth. Yet the scene lacks, as in stark contrast to the Garden of Earthly Delights, there is no interaction. Despite the fact that we know how much Christian likes the bodily pleasures the only time Ana thinks he looks serene is when he is fully dressed and alone in his cave.
In the next post we will move on to the right panel.
Crissy and Aviva