Bosch’s Three Peddlers, Pilgrims or Wayfarers

The symbol of the pilgrim on the precarious and threatening road of life was common in medieval painting and literature.

Lincolnn Cathedral Pilgrim

Lincoln Cathedral Pilgrim

Before we begin the journey of Bosch’s Wayfarers or Pilgrims we can begin with an appropriate prayer written by Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618):

Give me my scallop-shell of quiet,

My staff of faith to walk upon,

My script of joy, immortal diet,

My bottle of salvation,

My gown of glory, hope’s true gauge,

All thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.

The Land

The two outer wings of the Haywain, both at the Escorial and the Prado depict a poor, emaciated middle aged peasant with his possessions strapped to his back, glancing behind him at the scene of a robbery, while fending off a vicious dog. Note the red color of the dog (the color of evil) and perhaps this can be associated with the hellhounds on the interior central panel. here too is Bosch’s symbolic blackbird indicating death.  The peasant is about to step on a bridge that is too thin to carry his weight (perhaps indicating that the next step in his life may mean disaster or death.)  Ahead of the peasant lies temptation. On the right, peasants dance to a bagpiper while their sheep wander.  This self-indulgence contrasts markedly with the role of Christ as the Good Shepherd.  On the hill in the background people gather for a hanging and close by is a pole surmounted by a wheel on which the bodies of the executed were displayed. In summary, the path of life is perilous.

There are two versions of the Haywain one at the Escorial and the other at the Prado.  I have placed them both here and a third known as the Rotterdam Wayfarer which I will discuss below.

In researching this piece I was reminded that in the time of Bosch there were two types of paupers: those of low social position and those who elected to live a life of voluntary poverty, such as St. Francis of Assisi.  To be noted is the fact thar Franciscans and Poor Clares were prominent in s’Hertogenbosch, and were also key members of the Brotherhood of Our Lady.

The latter practiced the discipline of self-denial in imitation of Christ.  Called “Christ’s poor’ and marked by ‘maimed limbs, bleeding sores, torn coats, putrid badges, vile rags,’  they were to be seen in villages and on the roads. Such persons carried their walking stick as “glorious trophies of their Christian patience.”  Is the peasant lay person who has embraced a Kempis admonition to ‘keep yourself a stranger and pilgrim upon the earth, to whom the affairs of the world are of no concern?’

It is worth quoting a part of a sermon of St. Bernard of Clairvaux:

Blessed are those who live as pilgrims in this wicked world and remain untainted by it…For the pilgrim travels the king’s highway neither on the right or the left.  If he should come upon a place where there is fighting and quarreling, he will not become involved. And if he should come to a place where there is dancing and leaping or where there is a celebration…these will not entice him, for he knows he is a stranger, and as such has no interest in these things

What Bosch did with oils St. Bernard and Thomas a Kempis painted with words.

The Reworking of the Wayfarer

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

The Wayfarer

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

In this circular painting Bosch reworked the figure of the wayfarer on the outer wings of the Haywain 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. 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. 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.

BOSCH, Hieronymus  The Wayfarer (detail)  -  Oil on panel  Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

BOSCH, Hieronymus
The Wayfarer (detail)

Oil on panel
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

The customer for whom the second woman waits may very well be the traveller himself. He has not just emerged from the tavern, but has passed it in his journey and his path leads towards a gate and the tranquil Dutch countryside beyond. Now he halts on the road, as if allured by its promise of pleasure. Whether the pilgrim will turn away from the tavern to pass through the gate is as doubtful.

Some scholars assume that the picture represents an episode from the parable of the Prodigal Son.


About Monsignor Mark Richard Lane

I am a Catholic Priest of the Diocese of Richmond. I am also a presenter in the Theology and Symbolism in Art from the art of the catacombs to modern art. My current research is on the duplicity of art in 19th Century America.
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