I will be giving a lecture at St. Olaf’s Catholic Church in Norge, Virginia on February 4, 2014. Entering the world of symbolism again I intend to add some new pieces to the presentation including Ecce Anncili Domini by Rossetti, Roger Wagner’s Menorah and Chagall’s White Crucifixion and Green Crucifixion. These will be accompanied by 19th Century American artists and the French School of Social Realism as seen in two works by Millett and Courbet.
Bosch will also be included. He has always been a favorite artist, and was included in my work at the Osher Institute at the University of Richmond. What I discovered was that he is not everybody’s favorite and there is a reason.
His works have been described as extraordinary, creative and unconventional. At first sight we shudder at the sight of fiendish monsters who torment helpless victims within a sulfurous hellish landscape. His works contain scenes of some of the most vivid inventive torture ever depicted in painting. His art makes us pause, as when in viewing his Garden of Earthly Delights, to see such rampant sexuality, seductions and the sensual use of strawberries and flowers and yet Philipp II kept this work in his private quarters in the Escorial and employed it, and the other 20 Bosch works, as instructional pieces for the royal children.
Larry Silver in his work on Bosch states that some have theorized that it contains hidden astrological, alchemical or heretical meaning.
Bosch has been presented as a heretic and a mad man.
In this post and those which follow I will present Bosch, the Roman Catholic, the member of the Onser Vrouwen Broederscap, the confraternity of The Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Lady. As a sworn member of the Brotherhood of Our Lady, Bosch was part of a group who ministered regularly to the poor. The brotherhood also sponsored hospices in which the poor were fed and nourished and members volunteered their time, anonymously serving and bathing the itinerant poor. On 26 November 1442 a guesthouse for the mentally ill is founded with money from the estate of Reinier van Arkel. Located on the Hinthamerstraat, it still serves its original function and is now the oldest psychiatric hospital in the Netherlands.
An image which marks the importance of charity as a basis for Christian faith is found on the Baptismal font in the Cathedral of St. Jan in ‘s-Hertogenbosch by Aert van Tricht, 1493.
Hayride To Hell
Bosch is an artist preoccupied with sin and folly and punishment. His art is conceived in a violent and vicious era when the Church is being attacked both from within and without.
Unlike our own day, there is no division at the time of Bosch between the spiritual and the material. Both looked to salvation in Christ as seen in the second Paradise Panel.
Bosch’s view of human nature is there in all his works. One work I will be discussing is the Haywain. It is a triptych which exists in two versions, one in the Escorial and the other in the Prado. We will be looking at the Prado painting.
The left wing represents the Creation and the Fall but Bosch reverses the sequence of episodes from foreground to background. He also includes the expulsion of the rebel angels, who could be viewed as demonic mosquitoes, descending to earth with sin and death. The temptation scene takes place under an apple tree presided over by a serpent with a female head, in keeping with medieval imagery. With the deed accomplished Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden.
Please take note of the archangel on the left, dressed in liturgical vestments of a cope and alb as he lifts his sword to Adam. Eucharistic allusions will be part of the repertoire of the next generation of Flemish painters.
The central panel of The Hay Wain appears to be a picture of a good, autumnal harvest. It is image of bounty, but a bounty limited to a few.
A Flemish song and proverb tells humanity that God had heaped up good things on the earth like a stack of hay for the benefits of all, but, the world is a stack of hay, and everyone snatches from it as much as he can. ‘ In the end it is al hoy (all hay.)’ Take this as the theme of the central panel.
Here Bosch catalogues folly and sin. His mob is not only guilty of avarice but of vanity. It might be a good meditation to reflect on the words Bosch’s contemporary Thomas a Kempis in his Imitatio Christi:
“Vanity is everything outside of loving and serving God (Ecclesiastes 1:2). Vanity is to seek perishable riches and to rely on them; it is vanity to pursue honors and raise yourself to a high dignity; it is vanity to follow the lusts of the flesh and to desire that which hereafter will bring grievous punishment; it is vanity to wish for a long life and care little about a good life; it is vanity to attend only to the present life, and not look a head to the future; it is vanity to love what quickly passes away, and not to be hastening thither where abides everlasting joy.”
Lumbering across a vast landscape the cart is followed by the world’s privileged on horseback. They are led by Pope (possibly Alexander VI) and Emperor, Maximillian I, the heads of the spiritual and temporal realms of Christendom. They are followed by Burgundian nobility. At the edge of the painting the Hapsburg double eagle and and the fleur-de-lys of France are seen.
Bosch populates the lower register of the central panel with some of the thieves, charlatans, clergy and nuns who will be seen in his other works. This is a motley crew which includes foreigners, as well as a pilgrim, quack dentist, and greedy and licentious religious. Many frantically attempt to snatch tufts of hay even to the point of loosing their lives. here is humanity given over to sin.
Atop the hay wagon Bosch places a group that indulges in the sin of luxuria. This is an indulgence in “wine women and song” that was a part of the upper class in their pleasure gardens. It is at the very summit that the leisure class sits flanked on either side by pleading angel and a prancing musical demon. The sin of lust is taking place in the bush behind with a voyeur looking on, while in the foreground the music-making couple symbolized spiritual love.
All this frantic activity is witnessed by Christ, as the Man of Sorrow. Except for the praying angel atop the hay wagon, and the viewer, no one notices the Divine Presence amidst the distractions of sin. Christ is positioned frontally and is meant to be seen by the viewer. To attend to worldly sin is to ignore Christ, but to be aware of Christ’s sacrifice, humility and grace is to transcend the worldly deceitfulness.
Within all the frantic journey of the hay wagon no one notices that the wagon is being pulled by a familiar group of demons led by a fish with human legs and other hybrids of mismatched animal and body parts to hell.
Merrily We Go To Hell
It is sometimes said of Bosch that the general theme of many of his works is “merrily we go to hell.” This evidenced in the central panel of the Hay Wain where all sections of the social strata progress in sin, from Eden to hell, across its panels.
In hell demons snare naked human beings and the hunter becomes the hunted put upon by hell-hounds. The scene is full of symbol and suggestion. Look, for example, at the man lying on the ground with a toad devouring his genitals, suffering the fate of all lechers. Since the toad looks at first sight like a fig leaf, it carries, perhaps, echoes of the Fall of Man. One man is being devoured by a fish. At what could be described as the front of the procession a man with a helmet rides and ox and carries a chalice pierced by a spear. The ox and the chalice are familiar Christian symbols, but now they are the goods of hell. Another symbolic interpretation of this figure may be taken from the 12th century Vision of Tyndale, who, during his tour of hell, was forced to lead a cow across a narrow bridge as punishment for stealing his neighbor’s cow. On the bridge he encountered those who had robbed churches and committed other acts of sacrilege. This could also be seen in the Eucharistic chalice held by Bosch’s figure. The Visio Tnugdali was the most influential vision of heaven and hell before Dante’s Divina Commedia.
Hell appears under construction as one demon climbs a ladder with fresh mortar for the devils above, and another raises a floor beam with a hoist. The motif of the circular tower may be indicating that there is need for hellish expansion as the demons anticipate the souls currently enslaved by the hay wagon and the many souls who, if Christ remains distant in their lives, will suffer the same fate.
While towers abound in medieval descriptions, Bosch’s tower is unique because of the building activity. However, St. Gregory the Great reports a vision of heaven in which houses were constructed of golden bricks. Each brick represents an ‘almsdeed’ done by someone on earth, and were intended to receive the souls of the good. Bosch represents the counterpart to the heavenly towers. Reflecting on the central panel the stones supplied here are avarice, vanity, lust and power.
The basic meaning of the Haywain in summary is simple. It is a moral parable that gathers together symbolism to tell the viewer that the actions seen, and the resultant punishment meted out, occurs in Christian lives over and over again. The modes of behavior Bosch presents can be our behaviors, if we choose to keep Christ distant from our daily life. I view his paintings as sermons, if we are willing to see and hear.