October 2016        

Images of greed and sin

Jenny Farrell

Hieronymus Bosch, the famous Dutch Renaissance painter, died five hundred years ago this year. His date of birth is presumed to be about the year 1450.
     He was born into a family of painters called van Aken, after the German town of Aachen. Perhaps it is a sign of his attitude to the hegemony of the German Kaiser, Maximilian, that he changed his name to that of his Dutch home town, ’s-Hertogenbosch, familiarly called Den Bosch.
     Bosch’s paintings are intriguing and at the same time somewhat obscure. Many symbols easily understood in his day have become less readable. Nevertheless, we can still look at his paintings today, enjoy them, and understand his general meaning.
     Bosch in all likelihood attended the same school as Erasmus of Rotterdam, the famous humanist scholar of European standing. Both employed irony when commenting on the Renaissance society of their day.
     One of Bosch’s most famous pieces is a triptych entitled De Hooiwagen (The Haywain). In it he breaks the conventions of the religious triptych of the time. A triptych comes in three parts, with a main, large picture in the middle, in those days usually with a religious scene, flanked on each side by smaller panels depicting more pious images. When the two side panels are closed over, this front usually displays yet another religious picture.
     In The Haywain, Bosch goes with convention in depicting the Garden of Eden on the left-hand panel, illustrating the fall of angels from Heaven and their changing into insect-like demons; the creation of Eve from Adam; her temptation by the snake; and Adam and Eve’s rejection from Eden. In Bosch’s painting, however, Adam seems to challenge the Angel over their dismissal.

     The centre image is very unconventional indeed, as it is dominated by an enormous haywain or hay wagon. There are different hypotheses concerning the symbolism of the hay. In the context of the painting I think it represents money. The mountain of hay on the wagon is too even and smooth to be “real” hay (compare the real hay in the foreground of the picture, where mendicant nuns stuff a sack with hay for the gluttonous monk). Also, there is a German saying for the very rich, that they have money like hay.
     Behind this high, laden cart follow leaders of church and state. They have stacked the cart with the hay (money) from high taxes and indulgences. It is pulled towards Hell by demons, who physically move from the main “Earth” panel into the right-hand “Hell” panel. It is an uninterrupted image: the “walls” between Earth and Hell are not fast. We know that the cart is pulled by demons, as they are creatures that are half animal and half people; it is the way Bosch painted demons.
     Over the middle “Earth” section we can spot a rather helpless-looking Christ, displaying his wounds and looking down on a sinful population, who do not look up to him. All kinds of folk, including monks, women and men, old and young, also suggestions of non-Europeans (see the turbans), are clamouring to get what they can from the load with their hayforks from all sides. Some kill and deceive; others get caught under and crushed by the cart wheels.
     This image of greed and sin is continued in the foreground of the main middle section. One man may be a kidnapper; a quack pulling teeth has “hay” in his purse; and a nun offers more hay to a bagpipe-player dressed in a blue garment, echoing the demon atop the hay wagon. Bagpipes alluded to promiscuity in Bosch’s day, as did the jug tied to the pole.
     Only on top of the hay are there people not engaged in sinful behaviour, two lovers, albeit depicted ironically with a demon and a voyeur on either side of them. Only one lost angel looks up at Christ.
     Echoing the division into three of the triptych, there are three horizontal levels, with the unobserved Christ at the top, the hay wagon, pulled into Hell by the demons, in the centre, and then smaller scenes in the foreground of further impious activity. The demons pulling the wagon into Hell are accompanied by more symbols of sin, but these double as indications of violence and war: the carrying of pikes, bodies pierced by arrows, a severed, blindfolded head.
     My suggestion that the hay probably represents money is underlined by the fact that there is something constructive going on in Hell: the building of a tower—most probably an allusion to St Angelo’s Castle (Castel Sant’Angelo), which was being built in Rome at the time, paid for by the indulgence money extracted from people throughout Europe. The burning city in the background would have been a familiar sight in the Netherlands of the day, as wars were an ever-present reality, including the hanged man amid the blaze and a sliced-open, disembowelled body on a pike in the foreground.

     Is Bosch cynical about humanity? The panels of the Haywain triptych could lead the viewer to a degree of dismay regarding life and the predominance of greedy and sinful behaviour. However, when the triptych is closed we do not see the expected religious scene but the depiction of a wayfarer. Images behind him illustrate his perilous life: his path has taken him past the gallows, a bagpipe-player, a woman, and outlaws, and is now threatened by a dog with a spiky collar and images of death and decay.
     There is no allusion to Christ or Heaven here, nor is there to Hell. This picture presents the hapless life of the dispossessed in the world that unfolds when the panels are open.

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