Gardens of Love: Book Project and Resources

Gardens of Love and the Limits of Morality in Early Netherlandish Art

Leiden: Brill, forthcoming in Spring 2019

GEDHieronymus Bosch’s canonical Garden of Earthly Delights is but one example of the animation of landscapes, gardens, and the bounty of the earth to moralize bodies in the late medieval and early modern Low Countries. As the book demonstrates, depicted gardens deeply problematized the body for devout viewers of the era, who were taught that their very salvation was contingent upon physical normativity and carnal control. Bodily status, feelings, and acts were in fact for many the fundamental problems of human redemption.

From paintings by Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, and Joos van Cleve, to the celebrated Besloten hofjes (enclosed gardens) of Mechelen, to prints and printed books that circulated across the Low Countries, gardens and their bounty helped to shape, promote, and sometimes push back against perceived bodily challenges and failings. Metaphors of consumption and containment—and, conversely, of bodies moving freely within a landscape—critiqued bodily states and acts in relation to values promoted across a spectrum of sources, in theology, conduct books, and legislation for example. Key figures in these moralizing topographies were Christ and the Virgin Mary, upon whose purity theologians insisted. Artists pushed against the limits of visual representation to innovatively offer Christological and Marian purity as models for viewers of their works, with Jesus and Mary as archetypal if necessarily inaccessible models of sexual comportment. Nature’s issue was hardly neutral in this cause. To the contrary, gardens, landscapes, and motifs inspired by the natural world participated directly and vitally in these vivid bodily critiques, inviting viewers to contemplate and perhaps adjust their carnal ethics.

Related Publications65

“Consumption as Eroticism in Early Netherlandish Devotional Art,” in Imagery and Ingenuity in Early Modern Europe: Essays in Honor of Jeffrey Chipps Smith, ed. Alisa Carlson, Catharine Ingersoll, and Jessica Weiss. Turnhout: Brepols, forthcoming in 2018.

“Visuality, Morality, and Same-Sex Desire: Images of the Infants Christ and St. John the Baptist in Early Netherlandish Art,” Art History 38 (2015): 434-61.

2dAbstract: The theme of ‘The Infants Christ and St. John the Baptist Embracing and Kissing’ was one of the most successful iconographic types in early modern Netherlandish painting, yet the utility of the imagery remains understudied. Visual and textual evidence aligns in these works to reveal a pictorial language in which spiritual desire was expressed and meant to be inflamed by carnal desire. Yet spectators also could have drawn from a broad set of contingent visual resources to interpret the imagery as a condemnation of same-sex carnal practices. This period in fact coincided with new legislation in Antwerp that deepened the criminalization of sodomy and other non-procreative sexual acts. Read differently, however, the imagery suggests a compassionate view about same-sex relationships and, by extension, the sorts of sexual activities that defined that preference. This investigative path broadens the methodological landscape in a field in which both visuality and same-sex desire remain underexplored.


Plenary speaker, “Delimiting Choice: Lessons from a Netherlandish Christ-Child Incunable,” for the conference “Attending to Early Modern Women: Action and Agency,” University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, June 2018.

“Moralized Eroticism and the Depicted Christ Child in the Early Modern Netherlands,” presented at “Holy Children/Liminal Bodies,” a conference organized by the Institute for Art History, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich, 2017.

“Erotic Intimacy and the Depicted Christ Child in Early Modern Antwerp,” Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, Bruges, 2016.

“Consumption as Eroticism in Early Netherlandish Devotional Art,” Renaissance Society oPearson, RSA 2016f America, Boston, 2016.

“It’s in His Kiss: Holiness and Homoeroticism in Early Netherlandish Art,” presented at “Framing Premodern Desires,” a conference organized by the University of Turku in 2014, and by invitation at the University of Wyoming, Laramie, in 2010.

How does this project connect to contemporary issues? Click here for a list of resources and further reading.

Cited by the MA in Public History at the University of Amsterdam

“In March 2015 the IHLIA, a Dutch organization for collecting and preserving LGBT heritage, organized a symposium called ‘Queering the Collections’. Concerns were expressed about the lack of recognition for LGBT stories and objects in Dutch museums. A much heard complaint from museums is that there are not enough objects to display. The symposium called for more projects to expand and add to Dutch LGBT heritage collections.”



With thanks to José Boon and Eline Kemps.

Related Collaboration

Session organized with Sarah Moran, Utrecht University, for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference (SCSC), 2017: Beyond Interiority: Prayer, Politics, and Agencies in Northern European Devotional Art c. 1400-1700.

Details at