A modern version of a painting imagined five centuries ago is bound to look a lot different. But the contemporary painting does more than deviate; it breaks away. The difference comes down to concerns of the day.

A distinction characteristic

By the look of Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings "The Garden of Earthly Delights," it’s clear that he feared wantonness, unrelenting cravings of the flesh. A craving of a second kind shows up in the contemporized version that is also unrelenting – the need for water.

"Oracle of the Pink Universe" by South African artist Simphiwe Ndzube, now on view at the Denver Art Museum, tells the story of drought in his land.

The lack of rain in his land threatens his people’s survival. It’s as if Mother Nature were forcing the people in Bosch’s world to put its needs in perspective, in effect, to grow up.

Garden of Eden

To make his case, Ndzube uses Bosch’s baseline - the focal points from the book of Genesis like the pink baptismal fountain and those sci-fi-looking blue orbs with spires shooting out of them. In Ndzube’s picture, you see the orb being hauled off, far and away from the Edenic world full of springs.

Ndzube’s native town, Masiphumelele, has been in need of safe water for years. But it’s crunch time now. Dams are reportedly nearly dry and tap water is about to be shut off all the way from Johannesburg to Nelson Mandela Bay.

He told Hyperallergic magazine that he built a well to care for his family. “Most of the white families around that area had wells to maintain gardens. I took that as inspiration.”

It’s obvious that Ndzube’s inspiration for his painting came from Bosch. The lush, bright palette is straight out of "The Garden of Earthly Delights," which Bosch used to symbolize fertility.

As the Denver Museum of Art points out on its website, “Ndzube masterly weaves Bosch’s iconography into his own landscapes, as both artists address the destruction of creation.”

Source of inspiration

Ndzube lives now in Los Angeles, California where fires are a constant threat. He has a message for his fellow residents. “In California, people use water as if it is abundant.

Cape Town almost ran out of water, and it taught people how to conserve.”

Do you notice another big difference between "Oracle of the Pink Universe" and "The Garden of Earthly Delights?" Ndzube avoids finger-pointing. Even despite the life-threatening conditions of his homeland, where white people fare better than his people, he speaks of being inspired by their way of making the situation better.

But Bosch is big on finger-pointing. In his middle panel of the three-paneled "The Garden of Earthly Delights," you see a wild sex party. And in the midst of this free-for-all, Bosch pictured a woman picking the proverbial apple. Clearly, he blames the female for the decadence. If it weren’t for Eve, Bosch seems to say, the revelers would all be home tucked into their beds reading the good book.

It’s the oldest story in the book. Eve has been the problem from the start of the world - the cause of Original Sin. She’s why we got kicked out of Paradise. In contrast, Ndzube blames no one for the drought in his land, not even the big oil companies that fuel climate change. Now that’s inspiring, don’t you think?