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The Dark Side of Love: Greek Eros in Art

Beauty in all forms was an essential element of ancient Greek society, as exhibited through the appreciation of the human body through their art, and the ruminations of the human psyche through their philosophers. The combination of these two topics led to one of the most complicated concepts in history: what is love? The great minds of the time were not satisfied with a singular, overarching definition of “love.” Such an intricate notion required more meticulous classification, and thus, the subcategories of eros (passionate love), storge (familial love), agape (selfless love), ludus (playful love), pragma (enduring love), and mania (obsessive love), were born (Hendrick, & Hendrick, 1991). Thousands of years later, these concepts still ring true. Experiencing love has been universal since the beginning of time, and the plethora of ways in which it can be expressed makes it the perfect candidate for subjects in art. Due to the ambiguity of love, it is often easier to comprehend such a complex concept visually rather than verbally.

When one discusses “love,” most likely they are referring to eros, the type of love marked by passion and eroticism. Contemplating eros usually conjures thoughts of traditional affection: the loving embrace of Gustav Klimt’s 1907 The Kiss, or the emotional reunion of Antonio Canova’s 1787 Pysche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss. While these heartwarming images do indeed represent the “passion” descriptor of eros love, passion is a multifaceted word. The second thought that comes to mind when pondering love is the very thing that Klimt and Canova chose to capture the beginning of: sex. While sex is not synonymous with love, a concept that many have struggled with throughout human history, it is synonymous with eros. This concept plays a vital role in this particular strain of love and shows that love can be abused and twisted into something malignant and immoral.

Secular Eros: Les Demoiselles d'Avignon

Artists are mesmerized by depicting love and sex, which raises the topic of “the world’s oldest profession.” It is no mystery why prostitutes are the spotlight of many famous paintings of the greats such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Édourd Manet, and Edgar Degas. Similar to how writers are told to “write what you know,” artists do the same. The brothels of the 19th century acted as both the zenith of these men’s careers, and the demise of their health. Their frequent visits fueled their inspiration, painting the ladies of the night with enviably milky white skin and beautiful, delicate features. However, danger lurked under such “pure” skin of such an earthly indulgence. Syphilis ran rampant through the streets of Europe during the 1800s, and with the cure being discovered only in the 20th century, it was the downfall of many (Harris, 2008).

Unlike the beautiful depiction of his contemporaries, Pablo Picasso diverges from the norm in his depiction of prostitution. In his 1907 mural Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, he painted five prostitutes from the Barcelona brothel on Carrer d’Aviny, hence the name. Starting with the title, Picasso facetiously calls his subjects “ladies” in French, instead of the commonly used term for prostitutes at that time, filles, sets the tone for the painting (Harris, 2008). The juxtaposition does not end there, as the women are striking regal poses of respectable women throughout the ages. The woman to the right is reminiscent of the erect, two-dimensional posture of subjects in Ancient Egyptian art. The woman to the right of her has a similar contrapposto, a pose where a figure’s shoulder axis is misaligned with their hips and legs, evocative of ancient Greek sculptures, namely the Venus de Milo, and the raised arm mimicking that of Michelangelo’s Dying Slave (Istituto Italiano Edizioni Atlas, 2012). Unlike his contemporaries who previously painted prostitutes in a rather positive light such as Manet’s 1863 Olympia, Picasso chose to depict the dark side of the industry. He traded soft, inviting corporeal curves for sharp edges and jagged peaks of arms, knees, and breasts. Two of the five faces are transplanted with traditional African masks of gruesome facial expressions and an ominous color palette of brown, black, and green. This African influence stems both from Picasso’s many jaunts to the Louvre and the belief that syphilis, including the macabre face-deforming congenital syphilis, originated in the French Congo. Picasso allegedly visited Hospital Saint-Lazare in Paris, a hospital specifically for prostitutes afflicted by the incurable malady. When shown to fellow artists, the sheer repulsiveness of the women shocked them, an interesting reaction to such an infamously lethal disease that was no stranger to them (Harris, 2008).

Painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Picasso
Figure 1: "Les Demoiselles d’Avignon" by Pablo Picasso (1907).

The women are all facing the viewer, who could be interpreted as a man who just walked into the brothel. Instead of the warm welcome of a pleasurable time with beautiful women, the customer is faced with his potential fate if he chooses to go through with the transaction. Well-known poet and art critic of the 19th century, Charles Baudelaire, yet another victim of syphilis, wrote of prostitution: “a perfect image of savagery in the midst of civilization…[with] a kind of beauty which comes to her from sin” (Harris, 2008). In Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Picasso paints the "savage" end of a secular pleasure fueled by the guise of eros' passion.

Christian Eros: The Garden of Earthly Delights

Baudelaire was not alone in his assessment of engaging in such erotic escapades as a savage sin. According to Christianity, the repercussions of the sin of sexual intercourse out of wedlock are not executed merely by the terrestrial punishments of excruciating illnesses. Hieronymous Bosch’s famous 1490–1510 triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights outlines, in no uncertain terms, one’s ultimate doom of succumbing to such baser instincts.

Triptych "The Garden of Earthly Delights" (1) by Bosch
Figure 2: "Paradise" from the triptych "The Garden of Earthly Delights" by Hieronymous Bosch (1490–1510).

While colloquially referred to as a whole as The Garden of Earthly Delights, each panel has its own name, Paradise, The Garden of Earthly Delights, and Hell. The left panel, Paradise, shows the idyllic Garden of Eden before the notorious Fall from Grace, obvious by Adam and Eve’s unabashed nudity due to their lack of “knowledge,” that the Tree of Knowledge provided. The captured scene could be interpreted as the marriage of Adam and Eve. God stands between the two with his right hand frozen in a blessing and his left hand holding Eve’s hand to bestow her to Adam as his wife. Directly above these three subjects is a fleshy-pink fountain similar to that of the female reproductive organ. Animals such as unicorns and herons drink from the fountain’s water and reptiles emerge from it, cementing it as a source of life (Cota, 2020). At the time of the Garden’s creation in the Northern Renaissance, it was believed that a unicorn is a symbol of the virgin, as it could only be summoned by a female virgin of “pure and holy life” (Hirst, 1884). The unicorn, along with the swan, heron, and giraffe, are painted white to signify purity. There is a rabbit next to Eve, an animal known for its avid reproductive habits. This could signal God’s blessing to engage in sexual activity to the ends of prosperous, sinless reproduction within the sacred sanction of marriage. However, inside the black hole at the bottom of the fountain –which could be construed as the vaginal opening– is an owl. Owls are not just symbols of wisdom, perhaps foreshadowing the decision to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, but also symbols of lust and evil (Tuttle, 1985). Eve will give birth to Original Sin. Due to the villainization of Adam and Eve as the genesis of Original Sin, many forget that they are also the prototypes of Original Love.

This tranquil scene of a hallowed marital life led by God is juxtaposed by the middle panel, The Garden of Earthly Delights, which shows humankind’s proclivity towards weakness and sin. Upon first glance, one’s senses are instantly overstimulated, uncertain of what to begin to process first. Despite being the largest panel, Bosch does not waste an inch on negative space. The mural is laden with innumerable nude humans engaging in a plethora of corrupt activities including, but not exclusive to sexual orgies. Fruit litters the scene, covering genitalia in an allusion to the fruit Eve ate and the interminable cycle of sin and insatiable sexual appetite she unleashed. The humans are matched by the number of animals from horses and cows, and giant birds, to both known and nameless mythical creatures. Whether riding, touching, or embracing these animals, this camaraderie alludes to a kinship of humans’ carnal instincts (Woolard, 2002). One man in the far left corner is even seen hugging an owl; the ominous emblem of the previous panel is not feared here but welcomed. It is clear that in the Garden, there is a dearth of moral compasses and a surplus of lawless spirits who fraternize with impunity in a "diabolical love garden" (Tuttle, 1985).

"The Garden of Earthly Delights" by Hieronymous Bosch (1490–1510).
Figure 3: "The Garden of Earthly Delights" by Hieronymous Bosch (1490–1510).

There seems to be no end in sight to the breezy and “devil-may-care” attitudes of the people partaking in a gluttonous soirée, complete with party favors such as lust and indulgence, in The Garden of Earthly Delights. Consequently, the Devil does care. The jubilation and mirth come to a screeching halt in the final panel, simply labeled Hell. And Hell it certainly is. Bosch aptly painted the backdrop of the hellscape black. Streaks of light alight the sky. The traditional meaning of light as “hope” fails here, as its source is fire from burning buildings. The results of the reckoning are in. Earthly godlessness and sexual sin cannot be condoned. Punishment must be exacted. In the middle left, men are crucified on a harp and lute by snakes, symbols of temptation. Their disregard for Christ’s sacrifice means they will die the way he did, in their case on the very objects in which they once drew joy (Woolard, 2002). A man in the bottom right is getting attacked by a pig wearing a nun’s habit. An insect-like creature in the middle of the panel ingests a human head-first. People are being eaten and attacked by animals, the same animals they once frolicked with. God’s law dictates that one must be punished for sexual sin, however, this is not limited to sexual intercourse outside wedlock. In the Bible books of Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Exodus, God condemns all forms of “sexual aberration” such as bestiality and sodomy (Cota, 2020). Bosch, a devout Catholic, depicted the world devoid of godliness and the consequences that would be paid for the subsequent indiscretions.

"Hell" from the triptych "The Garden of Earthly Delights" by Hieronymous Bosch (1490–1510).
Figure 4: "Hell" from the triptych "The Garden of Earthly Delights" by Hieronymous Bosch (1490–1510).


After the harsh realities and merciless punishments exemplified by Picasso’s diseased women and Bosch’s fire-and-brimstone God, it is difficult to even classify these paintings into any category pertaining to love. However, when the Greeks were dividing and labeling the different types of love, they were referring to a kind of “passion and eroticism” that was born out of love. The passion in these two artists’ work is riddled with and motivated by lust, not love. This highlights the malleable will of man, their ability to taint even the purest of intentions, and the consequences they face in the aftermath’s carnage. Maybe the Greeks' initial concepts can fall short and fail to capture –at first glance– the intricacies and extremes that the human race can attain.


Cota, A. (2020). A Paradise Without God: Psychosexual Analysis of Hieronymus Bosch The Garden of Earthly Delights. The Macksey Journal, 1(1), article 237. URL:

Harris, J. C. (2008). Picasso's Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Archives of general psychiatry, 65(6), 620-621. URL:

Hendrick, C., & Hendrick, S. S. (1991). Dimensions of love: A sociobiological interpretation. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 10(2), 206-230. URL:

Hirst, J. (1884). On the Religious Symbolism of the Unicorn. Archaeological Journal, 41(1), 230-241. URL:

Istituto Italiano Edizioni Atlas. (2012). Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. 1907. Museum of Modern Art, New York. URL:

Tuttle, V. (1985). Lilith in Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights". Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, 119-130. URL:

Woolard, W. (2002). The Portrayal of Fifteenth-Century Religious Symbolism within Hieronymous Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1(1). URL:

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Elena Miceli

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