Gardens and Earthly Delights

At dinner last evening with a visiting priest friend, Father mentioned that he had parked a few blocks away from the restaurant, in a residential part of the neighborhood.  He noted the contrast between some of the grand old houses, and the very small ones located right alongside, and how people made an effort in this area to have their gardens look beautiful both for their own pleasure, and for other people to enjoy.  Even having lived in this neighborhood for many years, and a gardening aficionado of sorts, this observation is something that I can occasionally forget.

No doubt we have all had the sensation of reading a novel, or watching a television biography of some famous person, and seeing the exact moment when they forget what they ought to be doing and act out of selfishness and stupidity; we may even shake our heads because we can see what is coming.   Time and again we have seen people in history or heard of characters in fiction forgetting that they should always try to be grateful, and instead deciding to pursue material pleasures for which they have no real need.  And it is interesting to think about how many times a garden has factored into this equation.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve disobey what God told them to do, and both they and we their descendants pay the price.  They had everything they could have wanted, and they should have been grateful for it, but they were not content.  Yet it is by no means the only example from the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Having been raised up from nothing, David had been faithful to God’s Will and had been rewarded for putting his trust in the Divine and not in man.  However one night while walking in the rooftop gardens of his palace, he saw Bathsheba, wife of Uriah, taking a bath at her home next door, and he decided that he wanted more than he was permitted to have.  The rest you probably know, or can read in this excerpt from the Second Book of the Prophet Samuel.  There is a similar circumstance involving a garden and a bath in the story of Susanna and the Elders, from the Book of the Prophet Daniel.

We also read in the First Book of Kings how King Ahab threw what can only be described as a childish hissy-fit, when his neighbor Naboth refused to sell his meager vineyard.  The King wanted to convert Naboth’s plot into a garden, probably for the worship of Baal.   Queen Jezebel, not unlike King David, manages to get Naboth killed so that her husband can claim the vineyard for himself, and doom thereafter falls upon the royal family.

The garden as a beautiful place where sin and selfishness can be pursued has fascinated artists throughout the centuries. In his endlessly absorbing masterwork, “The Garden of Earthly Delights”, the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) created a stunning triptych, or painting made up of three panels hinged together, representing the Garden of Eden on the left, a central panel with human beings romping about a garden in all sorts of excess, and a right panel depicting the torments of Hell earned through such excesses.  It is a powerful, unforgettable work, easily one of the most important Old Master paintings ever painted.

In a somewhat different vein, in the work of French painter Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) we see a different kind of garden excess, though one which is not necessarily apparent at first viewing.  Rousseau is undoubtedly most famous for his “jungle” paintings, depicting lions, tigers, and other wild beasts crouching in the underbrush of a lush forest, or chasing and eating their prey.  Yet while the artist claimed that he drew his inspiration from having visited the lush jungles of Mexico, in truth he never left France: the exotic flora and animals that filled his work were taken from his observations at Parisian botanical gardens and taxidermy exhibitions.   Rousseau could not be content with just being himself, and instead of being honest decided to make himself into a supposedly more exotic figure.

These are just a few examples of how we human beings tend to indulge our own vanity in lying, gluttony, lust, violence, and so on, in order to get more than our fair share. Even as we acknowledge that this is the case however, let us not be despondent and assume, like those who believe that human beings are nothing more than the species du jour, that all of this is for naught.  For in another garden of course, located on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, Christ showed how to break that cycle of selfishness.

If you have never seen an olive tree at first hand, or walked through a grove of them in a garden, they are wonderful things, both hideous and lovely at the same time.  The older the olive tree gets, the more gnarled and lumpy it becomes, even as its silvery, elegant leaves have been used for centuries as symbols of peace and friendship, decorating buildings and works of art all over the world.  And the more established the olive is, the more capable it is of regenerating itself and producing fruit when the tree is damaged.  This longevity can be attested to in numerous examples around the world, where olive trees that have been carbon-dated or tree-ring-dated to be thousands of years old, and are still producing bumper crops of olives every year.  This is what a garden is meant to be, rather than a place to act out of greed and selfishness.

The pleasures of a garden are many at this time of year, just before the formal beginning of summer: we can spend the long days enjoying the scents, the colors, and the sounds of life around us.  Certainly, gardens can be a bad thing if they are misused, as a way of engaging in pride at the expense of others, or indulging our own whims and selfishness, as some of the forgoing examples have shown.  Yet in the end like the lives we have ourselves been given, they are not intrinsically evil places, but rather good things we are meant to enjoy and use properly.

Perhaps next time you are out toiling in your own garden, or visiting someone else’s, it may be helpful to stop and consider whether the real delight of the garden is not so much in the taking but rather, as pointed out at the beginning of this piece, in what it gives.

“The Garden of Earthly Delights” (Detail of Left Panel)
by Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1490-1510)
The Prado, Madrid

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