The Kantian Sublime

Immanuel Kant 

Kant was an 18th century German philosopher, born in Königsberg, Prussia, in 1724. For the puposes of this particular exploration, I will focus on The Critique of Judgement, one of Kant’s most influential works on Aesthetics. For Kant, aesthetic judgements branch off into experiences – either that of beauty or sublimity. 

Kant makes claim that objects in nature can be beautiful, but not sublime. This claim is manifested in the idea that the sublime can not be found in any sensible form, for it is the beautiful that is concerned with form. Kant explains that the sublime is an attribute of the mind and not of nature. Thus, a vast ocean or powerful storm is subject to the imagination, thus, it is not the sublimity of the ocean itself, but the sublimity of the ideas of reason – a concept which alternates between an attraction and repulsion of totality or freedom. Kant describes the sublime as a feeling that arises when we are aware of divine experiences – or what he calls a priori knowledge: universal validity, independent of experience. Furethermore, Kant breaks down the sublime into two categories: the mathematical sublime, which overwhelms us with magnitude and grandeur; the dynamically sublime, which occurs when an overbearing force restricts our ability to resist. An example of the mathematically sublime would be the apprehension of size of the universe; this magnitude is incomprehensible, though it can be studied with calculation and comparative measurement, the concept exceeds our imagination and understanding and makes us aware of the idea of totality within its formlessness. The dynamically sublime could be described as a terrifying occurrence in nature which holds power over our actions in life, but is not deemed dangerous to a disinterested viewer – such as a powerful thunderstorm or the power of God. 

The Sublime

The Garden of Earthly Delights: Kantian Interpretation

The Garden of Earthly Delights exhibits an inconceivable scene that alternates between attraction and repulsion with regard to the totality of mans’s freedom in the world. Bosch’s triptych carry us beyond the limits of experience to a complex idea of morality and infinity; a timeless, abysmal scene that our imagination cannot grasp. For the purpose of this project, I will be applying the “wicked” interpretation of the work in order to justify its sublimity.

What Makes The Garden of Earthly Delights Mathematically Sublime?

As Kant explains, the mathematical sublime is constituted by massive size and grandeur, such as the concept of infinity. Consequently, the overwhelmingly dense depiction presented in The Garden of Earthly Delights leads the observer through a terrifying and immensely incomprehensible view of a timeless world deceived by the AntiChrist. Another example of the mathematically sublime in this triptych could be the AntiChrist himself. With the depiction of the AntiChrist present in the piece, the notion of sublimity is cast by the incomprehensibility of his obscure disguise as the Christ figure.

What Makes The Garden of Earthly Delights Dynamically Sublime?

According to Kant, “This pure, elevating, merely negative presentation of morality, by contrast, carries with it no risk of visionary rapture, which is a delusion of being able to see something beyond all bounds of sensibility, i.e., to dream in accordance with principles (to rave with reason), precisely because the presentation in this case is merely negative” (Kant, 156). Due to the fact that the dynamically sublime is closely connected to morality, The Garden of Earthly Delights is a great exampled of such sublimity. The Garden of Earthly Delghts represents a twisted narrative of religious doctrine that focuses on demonic fear and apocalyptic foreshadowing brought on by humankind’s submision to the decietful AntiChrist in fear of God. Bosch first presents us with the creation scence in which the fisrt humans, Adam and Eve, are fooled by the AntiChrist and persuaded steer humankind to live a life of immorality. The center panel, in contingency with the left side horizon, depicts a utopian society that lives untroubled by the traditional virtues of reverence towards God. In the High Renaissance, society was dictated by moral judgement and piety. Bosch introduces an instance of a deception that questions God’s dominance and control over humankind; he suggests that any devout, God fearing, member of the church could be heavily influenced by the “word” of God, even if such words were false prophecies preached by an immoral being – the AntiChrist. The Garden of Earthy Delights envisions a world of immoral judgement that develops from the loss of rational reason and the innate sense of human freedom. Though the work portrays the fall of man, Bosch’s inventive narrative displays his creative ingenuity in a humorous and playful way that challenges the dynamic power of God as the guide reason and rational.