Hieronymus BOSCH




Renaissance Art Map
Hieronymus Bosch  Between Heaven And Hell
    Life and Milieu
    Artistic Origins and Early Biblical Scenes
    The Mirror of Man
    The Last Judgement
    The Triumph of Sin
    The Pilgrimage of Life
    The Imitation of Christ
    The Triumph of the Saint    





Between Heaven And Hell


The Pilgrimage of Life



Triptych of Haywain. The Wayfarer (detail)
Oil on panel, 135 x 90 cm
Monasterio de San Lorenzo, El Escorial




The »Haywain« and the »Garden of Earthly Delights« show mankind trapped by its age-old enemies, the World, the Flesh and the Devil. The precarious situation of the human soul in this life was represented again, although in somewhat different terms, on the outer panels of the »Haywain« triptych. These panels are inferior in quality to the rest of the triptych and were probably completed by workshop assistants, but Bosch must have designed the composition.
The foreground is dominated by an emaciated, shabbily dressed man who is no longer young, carrying a wicker basket strapped to his back; he travels through a menacing landscape. A skull and several bones lie scattered at lower left; an ugly cur snaps at his heels, while the footbridge on which he is about to step appears very fragile indeed. In the background, bandits have robbed another traveller and are binding him to a tree, and peasants dance at the right to the skirl of a bagpipe. A crowd of people gather around an enormous gallows in the distance, not far from a tall pole surmounted.by a wheel, used for displaying the bodies of executed criminals.
A countryside similarly filled with violence can be seen behind St James on the exterior of the Vienna »Last Judgments serving to remind us that James was the patron saint of pilgrims who invoked his protection against the dangers of the road. In the Middle Ages, however, every man was a pilgrim in a more spiritual sense. He was but a stranger on earth, an exile searching for his lost homeland. This poignant image of the human condition is almost as old as Christianity itself, for St Peter had already described Christians in similar terms, and these were repeated with countless variations by later writers. The German mystic Henry Suso, for example, saw men as »miserable beggars who still wander so verry wretchedly in oursorrowfulexile«. In Deguilleville's »Pilgrimageof the Lifeof Man«,the pilgrimage is employed as a framework for the life and spiritual temptations of a monk.
Bosch's pilgrim makes his way through the treacherous world whose vicissitudes are represented in the landscape. Some of the dangers are physical, such as the robbers or the snarling dog, although the latter may also symbolize detractors and slanderers, whose evil tongues were often compared to barking dogs. The dancing peasants, however, connote a moral danger; like the lovers on top of the haywain, they have succumbed to the music of the flesh. In expressing the spiritual predicament of all mankind, the pilgrim thus resembles Everyman and his Dutch and German counterparts Elckerlijc and Jedermann, whose spiritual pilgrimages form the subjects of contemporary morality plays.
In a circular painting now in Rotterdam, Bosch reworked the figure of the Prado wayfarer a decade or so later, this time placing him against one of his most delicately conceived landscapes. The rolling sand dunes at the right and the subdued tonalities of grey und yellow are sensitive transcriptions into paint of the rain-drenched Dutch countryside. There is little reason to believe, as some scholars do, that the picture represents an episode from the parable of the Prodigal Son. The large foreground figure closely recalls the »Haywain« pilgrim, except that he appears even more haggard and poorly dressed. There are, however, some subtle differences. Except for the snarling dog, with its possible allusion to slander, the dangers of the world are here chiefly spiritual. They are embodied first of all in the tavern at the left, whose ruinous condition echoes the ragged clothes of the wayfarer. As in Bosch's earlier »Marriage Feast at Cana«, the tavern symbolizes the World and the Devil in general, its dubious nature revealed by the man urinating at the right, and by the couple embracing in the doorway. Another inmate of the house peers curiously through one of the dilapidated windows.



The Wayfarer
Oil on panel, diameter 71,5 cm
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam



In the Late Middle Ages the course of a person's life on Earth was understood to be a pilgrimage from birth to death. The idea of the wayfarer was, therefore, of great significance to the Christian life. Depictions of this allegory were studied with great care for indications of dangers and pitfalls, of what and what not to do in this life. Bosch had treated the subject on the outside panels of The Haywain, and the same pose with different background messages is seen in this circular panel painted about 10 years later. Set in one of Bosch's most delicate and sensitively observed Dutch landscapes, the tattered scarecrow figure is pausing as he passes a dilapidated tavern. Possibly he is wondering if the woman gazing from the broken shuttered window has the same interest in him as the two 'lovers' in the doorway have in each other. The sordid scene is emphasized by the peasant urinating on the corner of the inn. The painting is different from The Hayixam panels in showing only the spiritual and sensual dangers that the wavfarer encounters.


The Wayfarer. The House of the Ill Fame (detail)
Oil on panel
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam




The customer for whom the second woman waits may very well be the traveller himself. As Bax has perceptively observed, he has not just emerged from the tavern, but has passed it in his journey and now halts on the road, as if allured by its promise of pleasure. Bax further suggests that the garments of the traveller and the various articles he carries are a symbolic commentary on his poverty, the sinful tendencies which led to his present condition, and his readiness to succumb to temptation once more. However this may be, the spiritual state of the wayfarer is also conveyed in less symbolic terms. Bosch has transformed the defensive movement of the »Haywain« pilgrim into an attitude of hesitation, while the wayfarer's head is turned towards the tavern with an almost wistful expression.
In the Rotterdam panel Bosch does not make the moral alternatives quite so explicit, but they can be discerned nonetheless. If the wayfarer looks back in the direction of the tavern, his path leads towards a gate and the tranquil Dutch countryside beyond. Unlike the violencefilled landscape of the »Haywain« wings, the background contains no suspicious incidents, and, except for the owl perched on a dead branch directly above the wayfarer's head, no overt symbols of evil. We are probably justified in seeing in the gate and fields a reference to Christ who, in John 10:9, speaks of himself as the door through which those who enter »shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture«.
In the »Haywain«, the pilgrim appears as a neutral figure, neither good nor bad. In the Rotterdam panel, Bosch made the image more profound by showing the pilgrim in the grip of a spiritual crisis. But whether the pilgrim will turn away from the tavern to pass through the gate is as doubtful as the issue of the struggle between angel and devils in the » Death of theMiser«.
This ambiguity of the Rotterdam »Wayfarer« exemplifies perfectly the pessimism of Bosch's age concerning the human condition. The same attitude predominates in a pair of small panels, perhaps altar wings, also at Rotterdam. On the reverse, Bosch painted four little monochrome scenes showing mankind beset by devils. They possess a farm and drive away the inhabitants, throw a ploughman from his horse and fall upon an unwary traveller. In the fourth scene, however, the Christian soul finds asylum: he kneels before Christ while a companion, like the just souls described in Revelation 6:11, receives a white robe from an angel.




The Fall of the Rebel Angels (obverse)
Oil on panel, 69 x 35 cm
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Mankind Beset by Devils (reverse of Rebel Angels panel)
Oil on panel, diameter 32,4 cm (each)
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam



Two small panels that may have formed, or been intended to form, the wings of an altarpiece, each carry a full picture on one side: The Fall of the Rebel Angels and Noah's Ark on Mount Araratt. On the reverse side are four circular paintings showing scenes of people being beset by devils during the mundane pursuit of their ordinary working lives. In one, devils have driven a farmer from his farm; in another, they have attacked a traveller; and in the one illustrated here they have knocked a ploughman from his horse. (In the fourth painting the Christian soul finds asylum.) It epitomizes in many ways the medieval belief in the real unseen existence of devils and demons everywhere. For Bosch, who all evidence shows to have been a depressive, morbid character, it is the simplest message of an evcrpresent danger. Constant vigilance must accompany everyone everywhere; devils are really ready to pounce. The ploughman sees the devil or did he just fall off his horse?



Noah's Ark on Mount Ararat (obverse)
Oil on panel, 69 x 38 cm
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Mankind Beset by Devils (reverse of Noah panel)
Oil on panel, diameter 32,4 cm (each)
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam




It was during Bosch's lifetime that belief in devils reached a new height. Erasmus could scoff at the demons of hell as mere bogeymen and empty illusions, but most of Bosch's contemporaries believed that devils actively and maliciously intervened in human affairs, both directly and through their agents, the witches and sorcerers. These beliefs were codified in the infamous »Malleus Maleficarum«, or »Witches' Hammer«, of Jacob Sprengerand Heinrich Kramer, published at Nuremberg in 1494. In scholastically precise terminology, the »Malleus Maleficarum« examines the nature of witches and their relationships with the Devil, as well as the means by which they were to be recognized and punished.
This immensely popular book influenced a great many witch trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and may also have inspired the pictures on the obverse of the two panels at Rotterdam just discussed. Here we see the Rebel Angels, already transformed into monsters, tumbling into a desolate landscape; and the landing of Noah's Ark on Mount Ararat, from which animals descend by pairs among the corpses of the drowned. These two curious scenes may allude to a medieval interpretation of Genesis 6:1-6, describing the corruption of the earth which resulted in the Flood. In those days, we are told, the sons of God took to wife the daughters of men who bore a mighty race of giants. The sons of God were frequently identified with the Fallen Angels, and the »Malleus Maleficarum«, following an opinion of St Thomas Aquinas, asks if their mighty progeny were not, in fact, the first witches, born of the »pestilent mutual association« of men with devils.
To Bosch's contemporaries, the melancholy spectacle of sin and folly could be explained only in terms of the Devil and his followers seeking to drag mankind into perdition. Against such overwhelming odds, what chance did the pilgrim have to reach his homeland? The answer of the medieval Church may be summed up in the title of Thomas a Kempis's book, the limitation of Christ«. By renouncing the world and following the examples set by Christ and his saints, the pilgrim could hope to pass through the dark night of this world into Paradise. And although Bosch painted many pictures mirroring the tragic condition of humanity, he produced almost as many others which illuminated this path to salvation.




Pen and bistre, 285 x 205 mm
Albertina, Vienna




Beggars and Cripples
Pen and bistre, 264 x 198 mm
Bibliotheque Royale Albert I, Brussels


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