The open triptych shows three scenes. The left panel is dedicated to Paradise, with the creation of Eve and the fountain of life, while the right panel shows hell. The central panel gives its name to the entire piece, representing a garden of life’s delights or pleasures. Between paradise and hell, these delights are nothing more than allusions to sin, showing humankind dedicated to diverse worldly pleasures. There are clear and strongly erotic representations of lust, along with others, whose meanings are more enigmatic. The fleeting beauty of flowers and the sweetness of fruit transmit a message of fragility and the ephemeral character of happiness and enjoyment. This seems to be corroborated by certain groups, such as the couple enclosed in a crystal ball on the left, which probably alludes to the popular Flemish saying: “happiness is like glass, it soon breaks”.
Closed, the triptych offers a grisaille view of the third day of the creation of the World, with God the Father as Creator. The two doors bear inscriptions reading: “He himself said it, and all was done” and “He himself ordered it and all was created”.
This moralizing work is one of Bosch’s most enigmatic, complex and beautiful creations and was made near the end of his life. It was acquired at the auction of Prior don Fernando, the illegitimate son of the Duke of Alba, and was taken to El Escorial in 1593.
It was deposited in the Prado Museum by Patrimonio Nacional in 1939.