Hieronymus Bosch, The Haywain, 1485-90, oil on canvas, Prado, Madrid
A moralizing painting, “The Haywain” embodies all the pessimistic views of Boch’s moral ideology and ultimately warns the viewer of the inevitability of death but also of punishment if he/she does not lead a moral life.
In the exterior, the foreground is dominated by a seemingly old and poor man, in an undefined journey. In front of him symbols of death remind him and the viewer of the inevitable end of human life. Behind him, a number of people engage in sinful acts.
When the triptych opens, the viewer faces three overpopulated panels, where the human figures mingle with cartoon-like creatures in an almost nightmarish synthesis of religious, moralizing and eschatological elements.üü The central theme is sin: from its origins in the Fall of Man to its ultimate punishment in Hell.
The left panel consists of a representation of the Fall of Adam and Eve, the source of all future sin, but also the fall of the angels. The angels are depicted as insects falling from the sky and God’s grace, while Adam and Eve are shown three times: talking to God, engaging in the original sin and finally expelled by an angel from paradise. Their expulsion gives a pessimistic message about the future of humanity which will be enhanced in the subsequent panels.
This first panel introduces the work’s main subject: sin to the viewer who will look for answers to the above mentioned questions in the rest of the triptych.
The central panel leaves the viewer perplexed between the representations of human vices, half human and half animal creatures. The hay wagon is driven by devils and is essentially in the middle of its trip, having started from the left panel –the original sin- and heading to the right, the end of the journey, hell. Christ from above looks down at the decay of man. A series of acts, which according to Bosch constituted vice are represented: aggression, greed, murder, lust and even popular festivities which the artist considers “opportunities for carnality and ill-breeding”. Even the clergy, the traditional representatives of God on earth, is presented engaging in sinful acts.
Like in the “Garden of Earthly Delights”, Bosch’s most famous work, the right panel consists of a representation of hell, the place where according to Christian religion, the sinful end up for an eternal suffering. The scene seems to come from a nightmare and if the purpose was indeed to scare people in the prospect of this eternal suffering, Bosch was successful. People are presented being devoured by animals and animal like creatures, pierced by devils or drowned in a brownish lake. Smoke from fires colours the sky and the whole picture is dark and threatening.