Death and the Miser c. 1490
Oil on wood, 93 x 31 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington
|Context: Even though the Reformation
doesn't officially start until Luther publishes his writings around 1516-20
there are strains of the ideas and Luther and his writings are probably
the result of years of moving in that direction in the North. Many
of Luther's ideas can be seen to evolve in the Northern art of the mid
1400's. It makes sense that the critical and often sarcastic imagery
we saw in Metsys' The
Moneylender and his Wife, 1514
and the ideas expressed in Petrus Christus. Saint
Eloy (Eligius) in his Shop. 1449 evolve into a critical point
of view about the main religious institution controlling their lives.
Notice that Bosch's iconography is a problem for art historians and each one attempts to interpret it according to what they know. Below you will find several points of view as to what the iconography may or may not mean. Read these different accounts and decide for yourself.
Death and the Miser c. 1490
Oil on wood, 93 x 31 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington
|Form and Iconography: The
use of oil paint to create an incredible level of realism is quite evident
in this image. Here, the artist shows off again by showing how well
he is able to paint the textures and surfaces but he is also demonstrating
his ability to create space.
In some ways, this scene is a genre scene. It takes place in what
looks to be a domestic setting and the central character is one that the
viewer would be expected to identify with.
Bosch often worked with almost incomprehensible or bizarre iconography. It seems, like the submerged symbolism of Robert Campin's Merode Altarpiece c. 1425 he is inventing or using a now lost lexicon of iconography.
The interior of this composition is formed to look almost as if the scene is taking place within the nave of a vaulted cathedral. This is probably done almost as a sarcastic reference to the Gothic style Church. To the left of the doorway in which a skeleton is entering is a Romanesque or Gothic capital and column.
This image seems to be a sarcastic play on the iconography associated with annunciation scenes such as those by Robert Campin's Merode Altarpiece c. 1425. Almost as in Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, in this scene, a miser is being visited on his death bed by a variety of fantastic creatures. Death stands ready in the door to fling his last arrow and take the man to his fate while his soul is wrestled over. God is represented by the apparition of the crucifixion in the window. The light that shines through the window is represented similarly to the soul of Jesus being delivered to Mary in the Merode Altarpiece c. 1425. Above the bed, on a canopy, a demon shines a fake sparking lamp to misguide him.
At the misers back is an angel. Again the angel is similar to representations of Gabriel in annunciation scenes but the miser pays no attention and seems torn, even on his deathbed, between the glory of god and the vain gloria of his avarice represented by the evil frog like demon tempting him with the money bag.
Overall the composition is a vertical one and this plays into the iconography. God is represented at the top of the image and as we descend through the image we can also see that the iconography descends into the common world of man.
Beneath the deathbed is a rather red nosed and almost drunken looking man who has a key and a rosary hanging from his robes. According to the the National Gallery's website, "At the foot of the bed a younger man, possibly the miser at an earlier age, hypocritically throws coins into a chest with one hand as he fingers a rosary with the other."
I think they may have it wrong though, to me it looks like he is placing money into an alm's bowl held by a demon while another demon passes up what looks to be a letter or a papal indulgence. Could this be St. Peter and the chest represent the holdings of the Catholic Church? Perhaps then, the letter is an indulgence that is an attempt to pay his way into heaven.
Beneath the chest and at the very bottom of the picture plane lies a suit of discarded armor. Perhaps a representation of the miser's discarded faith. Notice that the sword is rusted. He is no longer the good Christian soldier depicted in Durer's print.
Here's another point of view but I'm not sure if it's correct:
Bosch's depiction of a dying miser lying in his high narrow bedchamber features a number of details pointing out the consequences of a life devoted to avarice. The figure of death stands in the doorway indicating that the miser's end is rapidly approaching. And while the miser's guardian angel vainly tries to draw his attention to the crucifix in the window at the upper left, the demonic influence is overpowering. Many commentators have noted that Bosch's work here seems to be of a type which may have been influenced by the Fifteen Century devotional work Ars Moriendi (Craft of Dying) which describes how a dying man is exposed to a series of temptations by demons surrounding his deathbed. At each temptation an angel comforts him and strengthens him and in the end the angel is successful, the soul is carried to heaven and the devil's howl in despair. Here, however, the outcome is much less certain.
Of all fifteenth-century artists, Hieronymus Bosch is the most mysterious. His puzzling, sometimes bizarre imagery has prompted a number of false assertions that he was, for example, the member of a heretical sect, a sexual libertine, or a forerunner of the surrealists. What can be said is that he was a moralist, profoundly pessimistic about man's inevitable descent into sin and damnation. In this slender panel, probably a wing from a larger altarpiece, a dying man seems torn between salvation and his own avarice. At the foot of the bed a younger man, possibly the miser at an earlier age, hypocritically throws coins into a chest with one hand as he fingers a rosary with the other. In his last hour, with death literally at the door, the miser still hesitates; will he reach for the demon's bag of gold or will he follow the angel's gesture and direct his final thoughts to the crucifix in the window?also see
Avarice was one of the seven deadly sins and among the final temptations described in the Ars moriendi (Art of Dying), a religious treatise probably written about 1400 and later popularized in printed books. Bosch's painting is similar to illustrations in these books, but his introduction of ambiguity and suspense is unique.
This panel is thinly painted. In several areas it is possible to see in the underdrawing where Bosch changed his mind about the composition. His thin paint and unblended brushstrokes differ markedly from the enamellike polish of other works in this gallery.
BOSCH, Hieronymus, Haywain 1500-02
Oil on panel, Monasterio de San Lorenzo, El Escorial
Oil on panel, 147 x 66 cm
|Context: The subject of sin and its punishments was central to all
of Bosch's art. A famous triptych, The Haywain, contains a progression
of sin, from Eden to hell, across its panels. In the central panel sin
is represented through the metaphor of a large wagonload of hay for which
a greedy world grasps. All the while, the wagon is being pulled by demons
towards the right panel - which shows one of Bosch's earliest depictions
Form: Interestingly enough, Bosch again is collaging together
elements from images by Giotto in his Last Judgement and Masaccio's Expulsion
as well as various elements and compositional devices one might find in
the Tympanum of Gothic and Rmanesque Churches such as those found at Autun.
In the sky we see an image of God almost as if he is in a Last Judgement scene. The composition is very similar to Giotto's Last Judgment. The arrangement and scale of the angels or possibly even some demons is in a semi- circular form as in Giotto's.
Beneath, in the garden, we the arrangement of the figures in this continuous narrative scene is based on various standard compositions for each story. For example, the creation of Eve uses the same poses as Michelangelo does about ten years later in his Sistine Chapel panel.
Iconography: The arraangement of this panel is hierarchical. The scene at the top, may represent creation but the weird bug like demons grouped at the bottom coupled with the angels who are higher up in the picture plane, may indicate that this is the fall of the angels which is echoed by Adam's expulsion at the very bottom. An interesting, Catholic icon is represented by God the father as he pulls Eve from Adam's rib. God is wearing the papal crown.
Garden of Earthly Delights (closed triptych) c. 1500
"Creation of the World"?
Oil on panel, (86 5/8 X 76 1/4) 220 x 195 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid
The outer panels of Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights betray little of the wonders which lie within. Here we see the earth as Bosch envisioned it to be on the third day of creation. Light has been separated from the darkness, the waters have been divided above and below the firmament and trees are beginning to grow across the face of the earth. Overlooking this pale and watery earth composed primarily of subtle grays and green-grays is the Creator who is pictured as sitting passively on his throne holding a book which represents the creative Word. And lest we miss the allusion to the effortlessness of the Creator's act, Bosch has added an inscription from Ps. 33.9, "For he spake and it was done; he commanded and it stood forth." http://www.artdamage.com/bosch/gardenex.htm
Garden of Earthly Delights
(central panel of the triptych) c. 1500
Oil on panel, 220 x 195 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid
The "Garden of Earthly Delights," representative of Bosch at his mature best, shows the earthly paradise with the creation of woman, the first temptation, and the fall. The painting's beautiful and unsettling images of sensuality and of the dreams that afflict the people who live in a pleasure-seeking world express Bosch's iconographic originality with tremendous force. The chief characteristic of this work is perhaps its dreamlike quality; multitudes of nude human figures, giant birds, and horses cavort and frolic in a delightfully implausible, otherworldly landscape, and all the elements come together to produce a perfect, harmonious whole. "Bosch, Hiëronymus." Britannica 2001 Standard Edition CD-ROM. Copyright © 1994-2001 Britannica.com Inc. December 3, 2002.
Various attempts have been made to relate these fantasies to the realities of his own day. For instance, some of the sexually related visions have been related to the creed of the Adamites, a hereticel sect of the day advocating, at least in theory, sexual freedom like that in Eden. But the most promising line has been to recognize many of them as illustrations of proverbs: for instance, the pair of lovers in the glass bubble would recall the proverb 'Pleasure is as fragile as glass'. This approach also provides a link between these fantasies and Bosch's other work, such as the Cure of Folly or Haywain, and between Bosch's later work and Bruegel's in the middle of the sixteenth century: though without Bosch's satanic profusion, Bruegel also made illustrations of proverbs in this way. http://www.kfki.hu/~arthp/html/b/bosch/painting/triptyc1/delightc.html
Left Detail Heaven/Paradise
with Adam and Eve
The subdued gray earth of The Garden of Earthly Delight's exterior panels gives way to an explosion of vibrant color within. With the felt panel we move to the final three days of creation when life burst forth on the earth with all of its abundance. Swarms of living creatures inhabit the fertile garden with many gathering near a tall, slender Fountain of Life which occupies a small island in the lake at the center of the panel. To the right of the fountain a group of animals are climbing a bank which transforms itself into a face. In the foreground, near the Tree of Knowledge we see God presenting Eve to an astounded Adam who seems amazed at this creature who has been brought forth from his rib. It is notable that here God is much more youthful that we have seen in previous representations in that Bosch sets aside his earlier convention and presents the Deity in the Person of Christ. This follows a frequent convention in Fifteenth Century Dutch literature where the marriage of Adam and Eve is performed by a Youthful Deity.
The dreamlike paradise of the center panel gives way to the nightmare of Hell in which the excitement of passion is transformed into a frenzy of suffering. Here the lushest paradise Bosch will ever produce leads to the most violent of his always violent hells. As is generally the case in Bosch's vision of Hell a burning city serves as a backdrop to the various activities carried out by Hell's citizens, but here the buildings don't merely burn, rather they explode with firey plumes blasting into the darkness as what appears to be a wave of refugees flee across a bridge toward an illuminated gate house. As is always the case in Bosch's Hells the general theme is a chaos in which normal relationships are turned upside down and everyday objects are turned into objects of torture. And, given Bosch's use of musical instruments as symbolic of lust it is not surprising that in the Hell musical instruments as objects of torment are prominently featured. From the left we see a nude figure which has been attached by devils to the neck of a lute, while another has been entangled in the strings of a harp and a third has been stuffed down the neck of a great horn.
The picture shows a detail of The Hell. Several huge musical instruments figure prominently in Bosch's conception of hell. They are shaped similarly to the ones used at that time, but their positioning is unrealistic (for example, a harp grows out of a lute). Their relationship to each other bears strongly fanciful elements, and they have been adapted in form. What is more, the use of these instruments is wholly fantastic. There is a human figure stretched across the strings of a harp; another writhes around the neck of a flute, intertwined with a snake; a third peers out of a drum equipped with bird-like feet, the next one plays triangle while reaching out from a hurdy-gurdy, and even the smoking trumpet displays an outstretched human arm. It is difficult to conceive that the group of damned souls would sing a hymn from the musical score fixed to the reverse of the reclining figure in front of them - although this has been proposed by some scholars. The ensemble, lead by an infernal monster, could more likely be a parody. http://www.kfki.hu/~arthp/html/b/bosch/painting/triptyc1/delights.htmlAccording to Dr. Bruce Lamott, a music historian, the depiction of the individual crucified on the harp, the image of the trumpet shoved up the rear end of one of the figures, and the ears sliced by the knives could be a reference to the ideas that were being debated by the Council of Trent. Many individuals felt that music was too sensuous and the work of the devil and that the new traditions of playing music in Church was a mistake. There are also some very Giottoesque elements in this painting. In the lower right hand of hell is an image of a pig dressed in a nun's habit which obviously is a jab at the greedy nature of the Catholic Church. It is very similar to Giotto's inclusion of the Bishop who is taking money for indulgences and pardoning people in hell.
BRUEGEL, or Pieter Brueghel the Elder.
Pieter Brueghel the Elder
1559 Oil on oak panel, 117 x 163
cm Staatliche Museen, Berlin
Form: This is a realistic yet cartoonish rendering. In general the rules of perspective are adhered to and there is some chiaroscuro. Each object and individual are clearly rendered using the glazing techniques that Van Eyck perfected nearly a century before, however, the carefully glazed rendering of the surfaces and objects are secondary to the message. Iconography and Context: The iconography relates to the Northern habit of creating and using parables. A parable is a kind of adage which Webster's dictionary describes as a "saying often in metaphorical form that embodies a common observation."
|1. Daar zijn de daken met vladen gedekt.
There the roofs are tiled with tarts!
The image is one connoting a plentitude or a state of wealth. 2. Daar steekt de bezem uit.
There the broom sticks out.
This signifies that the head of the household is not at home which in turn indicates that a party is in progress or soon will be.
3. Onder het mes zitten.
Sitting under the knife.
A severe testing under great pressure.
4. 't is naar het vallen van de kaart.
It depends on the fall of the cards.
So much of life is a matter of luck.
5. Een pilaarbijter.
A pillar biter.
A religious hypocrite.
6. Zij draagt water in de eene, en vuur in de andere hand.
She carries water in one hand and fire in the other.
Someone who is two-faced.
7. Men kan met het hoofd niet door den muur loopen.
One cannot walk headfirst through a wall.
A man foolishly trying to ignore the hard realities of the natural world.
8. De een scheert de schapen, de ander de varkens.
The one shears the sheep, the other the pigs.
In life some individuals have opportunities for material success while others do not.