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 Triumph of Sin




This curious vehicle may remind us of the ship which Brant employs in his »Ship of Fools«, but Bosch's waggonload of hay is not simply an expeditious means of getting to Hell; it illustrates, in fact, one specific aspect of human frailty of which hay was a traditional symbol. A Netherlandish song of about 1470 tells us that God has heaped up good things on the earth like a stack of hay for the benefit of all men, but that each man wants to keep it all to himself. But since hay is of little value, it also symbolizes the worthlessness of all worldly gain. This is certainly the meaning of the allegorical haycarts which appeared in several Flemish engravings after 1550. A haycart also formed part of a religious procession at Antwerp in 1563; according to a contemporary description, it was ridden by a devil named Deceitful, and followed by all sorts of men plucking the hay, so as to show that worldly possessions are »al hoy« (all hay). »ln the end it is >al hoy<«, echoes a song of the same period.
All these haycarts appeared some years after Bosch's death, most probably inspired by his »Haywain« triptych, but it is reasonable to assume that the latter work possessed the same significance. The fact that the haycart of 1563 was a carnival waggon has led some scholars to suggest that Bosch, in turn, was influenced by similar floats. However this may be, the general arrangement of his haywain with its many attendants recalls the allegorical processions, especially the »Triumphs« of Francesco Petrarch, which appear in so many tapestries and engravings of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Bosch may have had such examples in mind when he composed his own Triumph of Sin.
Like the »Tabletop of the Seven Deadly Sins«, thus, the »Haywain« shows mankind given over to sin, completely unmindful of God's law and oblivious to the fate which he has prepared for them. In this image, however, Bosch focuses on one of the Deadly Sins: the desire for worldly gain, or Avarice, whose sub-categories are elaborated in the adjacent figure groups very much as they are in the old handbooks on the Virtues and Vices. As we are warned in the »King'sDream«, written by Laurent Gallus in 1279, Avarice leads to discord, violence and even murder, all of which are graphically depicted in the open space before the cart. If the princes and prelates complacently jog along behind the cart, holding themselves aloof from this struggle, it is because the haystack is, so to speak, already in their possession; they are guilty of the sin of Pride. Avarice also leads men to cheat and deceive; the man wearing a tall hat and accompanied by a child at lower left is most likely a false beggar, like the ones patronized by Old Avarice in Deguilleville's »Pilgrimage of the Life of Man«. The quack physician in the centre has set up his table with charts und jars designed to impress his victim; the purse at his side stuffed with hay alludes to his ill-gotten gains. Several nuns at lower right push hay into a large bag, supervised by a seated monk whose gluttonous tendencies are revealed by his ample waist.
The meaning of some of the other groups remains unclear, and we may also wonder at the presence of the lovers on top of the haystack. That they illustrate the sin of Lust we know from the appearance of similar figures in the Prado »Tabletop«, but it might be argued that the pursuit of the pleasures of the flesh involves the expenditure rather than the accumulation of earthly goods. A class distinction may perhaps be observed between the rustic couple kissing in the bushes and the more elegantly dressed group making music. Their music is certainly that of the flesh, for the devil near by, piping some lascivious tune through his nose, has already lured their attention from the angel praying at the left.
Such details serve to reinforce Bosch's basic theme of the triumph of Avarice; and the image of the haywain itself has yet another metaphorical function. In the sixteenth century, hay also possessed connotations of falsehood and deceit, and to »drive the haywain« with someone was to mock or cheat him. When we read that the demon who rode on the haywain of 1563 was called »Deceitful«, and note that the musical devil on top of the Prado haywain is blue, the traditional colour of deceit, the full implications of Bosch's load of hay become clear. Not only have wordly goods and honours no intrinsic value, they are also employed by Satan and his army as bait to lure men to destruction.
In composition, the Hellscape of the right wing of the »Haywain« stands between the discursive panorama of the Vienna »Last Judgment« and the monumental simplicity of the »Hell« panel at Venice. Reminiscent of the latter work, too, are the tall blasted ruin silhouetted against the flaming background and the damned souls struggling helplessly in the lake below, although the foreground is dominated by a new motif, a circular tower whose process of construction is shown in circumstantial detail. One demon climbs a ladder with fresh mortar for the devil masons on the scaffolding above, while a black-skinned companion raises a floor beam with a hoist. The significance of this feverish activity is not clear. Towers abound in medieval descriptions of Hell, but the devils are usually too busy ministering to their victims to engage in such architectural enterprises. However, St Gregory reports a vision of Heaven in which houses were constructed of golden bricks, each brick representing an »almsdeed« or charitable act by someone on earth, and were intended to receive the souls of the good. Perhaps Bosch has represented the hellish counterpart of these heavenly mansions, in which avarice, and not almsdeed, supplies the stones. In his account of the »Haywain« triptych in 1605, Siguenza expresses a similar thought when he describes the tower as being built to accommodate all those entering Hell; the stones are the »souls of the wretched damned«. On the other hand, Bosch's tower may be a parody of the infamous Tower of Babel with which men sought to storm the gates of Heaven itself. In this case it would symbolize Pride, the sin which caused the fall of the Rebel Angels and which is exemplified by the worldly prince and prelate and their retinue behind the haywain.
Other punishments can calso be related to the sins illustrated in the central panel. On the bridge leading to the infernal tower, a squad of devils torments a poor naked soul astride a cow. This hapless figure was probably inspired by the vision of Tundale, who, during his tour of Hell, was forced to lead a cow across a narrow bridge as punishment for stealing one of his neighbour's cattle. On the bridge he encountered those who had robbed churches and committed other acts of sacrilege, a detail which may have suggested the eucharistic chalice clutched by Bosch's figure. The man on the ground with a toad gnawing his genitals suffers the fate of lechers, while greed is appropriately punished by a fish-like monster in the foreground. Above him, a hunterdevil sounds his horn from the left, his human quarry gutted like a rabbit and dangling upside down from a pole. Several dogs rush ahead of their master to bring down a couple beneath the bridge.
Complex though its ramifications may be, the basic meaning of the »Haywain« is relatively simple. Even if we know nothing about the metaphorical use of hay in the sixteenth century, we can easily grasp the fact that Bosch is commenting on an unpleasant aspect of human nature. But this is not true of the triptych known variously as the »Garden of Earthly Delights« or the »Earthly Paradise«.



Triptych of Garden of Earthly Delights
c. 1500
Oil on panel, central panel: 220 x 195 cm, wings: 220 x 97 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid



Triptych of Garden of Earthly Delights (central panel)
c. 1500
Museo del Prado, Madrid



In a park-like landscape under a clear sky, surrounded by or inhabiting curious plant forms, the pale, naked human forms engage in the joyous battle of the sexes in a dreamlike contemplation of love, sexually enticing gestures or postures and in explicitly sexual embrace. Accompanying them are strange fruits, spherical or ovoid shapes and, in the distance, five structures, strange accumulations of forms, on or in which further sexual acrobatic exercises can be seen. In the centre a circular pool in which a group of naked females disport themselves is being circled by male riders on a variety of beasts. A number of giant birds, including the warning owl, and other curious animals are also part of the scene. A fish, a symbol of lewdness, is in the foreground. The curious overall effect of this pastoral orgy is of peaceful innocence and a real delight. The warning scene on the right wing makes it all the more potent.



Triptych of Garden of Earthly Delights (central panel - detail)
c. 1500
Museo del Prado, Madrid



Nest of Owls
Pen and bistre, 140 x 196 mm
Museum Boumans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam


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