In the early 16th century, Hieronymus Bosch painted a triptych that is both powerful and perplexing. Using oil paint and oak, Bosch imagined what is known as The Garden of Earthly Delights.
When the wings of this triptych are closed, the viewer sees God creating the world. The scene is painted in grisaille, a technique that renders a scene entirely in one color. This lack of contrasting colors gives the creation story an eerie otherness. God, the Father, sits in the upper right hand corner with a bible (the creative Word) in his lap. From that word comes a world. The world is huge and yet delicate, a semi-transparent sphere suspended in darkness. It is separate from God and yet governed by him as one watches creation unfold. It is the third day.
Upon opening this triptych, however, the viewer is overwhelmed with vibrant color and artistic imagination. With this power comes perplexity. The interior scenes are disturbing. Reading the panels from left to right, one begins with the creation of Adam and Eve. Here, God is present and active in his wonderful creation. The central panel depicts a world without God. The scene is filled with realistic and imagined figures engrossed in sexual and physical delights. The final panel depicts a world condemned. It is a hellish landscape, with the remnants of civilization in a city at the top and then a movement from imagined to very real tortures and death at the bottom.
This imaginative journey is as powerful as it is perplexing. Bosch takes his viewers from a rather plain and placid depiction of creation to a powerful explosion of action and wonder, both beautiful and perverse. Consider the contrast: the story of creation is eerie and other and intentionally plain; open its doors, however, and one finds in the center a world filled with delight. That world is without God and, for many viewers, without any clear meaning, but it remains framed by the memory of creation (left panel) and the anticipation of judgment (right panel).
In some ways, Bosch's painting captures our 21st century experience of ecological awareness. For most Christians, the story of creation is simple and plain. It may come as a childhood memory or as a passing encounter with Genesis in an adult instruction class, but it is not explored in any great detail. It pictures God and the world but it lacks the depth and complexity of scientific discovery and secular imagination. When Christians pass through that story into the world, they find themselves overwhelmed with an explosion of debate in ecological conversations. Sometimes the visions are beautiful and other times they are perverse. Sadly, the unformed Christian imagination only faintly remembers the past (God's creation of the world) and fearfully anticipates the future (where God delivers our souls from hellfire and damnation into a heavenly realm). Such an unformed and uninformed Christian vision makes it very difficult to find meaning in the present world. When one speaks about Christians and creation, one immediately thinks of arguments against evolution rather than the fullness and the wonder of the biblical witness or the fullness and wonder of the Christian life.
Historically, the triptych was a form often associated with religious devotion. Although Bosch paints in this form, art historians doubt whether this painting ever graced the altar of a church. Its imagery is too perplexing and disturbing. One wonders, however, if the church were to produce a triptych relating to creation, what would it look like? What kind of art would lead God's people into the depth and the wonder of his creation, care, and recreation of the world?