On the 500th anniversary of Luther's revolt, Jenny Farrell gives us a critical appreciation of Hieronymous Bosch's famous painting The Haywain, a coded criticism of the ruthless extortion by the ruling religious and secular elites in mediaeval society.
Hieronymus Bosch, the famous Dutch Renaissance painter, died in 1516. A year later, on 31 October 1517, 500 years ago this month, Martin Luther made public his 95 Theses against the widespread practice of selling indulgences, clerical corruption. He attacked the Church’s claim to be the sole interpreter of the word and intentions of God and defended ordinary human entitlement to God’s grace without Church involvement.
The Roman Church was the greatest landowner and represented the central force of European feudalism. Its increasing greed, the ruthless extortion of everybody including the poor, caused discontent. The sale of indulgences, claiming to ensure clear passage to heaven, were used to finance the upper clergy’s affluent lifestyle and ever more splendid Church buildings. Such plundering deprived all territories of their financial resources and became an obstacle to early capitalist development.
It is in this context that Bosch’s painting must be understood. One of his very famous pieces is a triptych entitled The Haywain. In it Bosch breaks the conventions of the religious triptych at 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 either side by smaller panels depicting more pious images. When the two side panels were closed over, this front usually displayed yet another religious picture.
In The Haywain, Bosch goes with convention in depicting the Garden 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.
There are different theories concerning the symbolism of the hay. In the context of the painting, I think it represents money: The mountain of hay on the cart is too even and smooth to be 'real' hay -compare it to 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 (monies) 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 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, 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 all clamouring to get what they can from the load with their hay forks 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 cart. Bagpipes alluded to promiscuity in Bosch’s day as did the jug tied to the pole.
Only on top of the hay are some lovers, the only people not engaged in sinful behaviour, 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 cart, pulled into hell by the demons in the centre and then smaller scenes in the forefront of further impious activity. The demons pulling the cart 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, which was being built in Rome at the time, paid for by the indulgence monies extracted from people across Europe. The torched 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 of 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, outlaws and 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.
Bosch’s date of birth is presumed to be around 1450. He was born into a family of painters called van Aken, after the German town of Aachen. Bosch in all likelihood attended the same school as Erasmus of Rotterdam, the famous humanist scholar of European standing. Both Dutchmen employed irony when commenting on the Renaissance society of their day.
Perhaps it is a sign of Bosch's attitude to the hegemony of German Kaiser Maximilian that he changed this name to that of his Dutch hometown, 's-hertogenbosch, or as the Dutch call it, den Bosch, the (pine) Forest.
Bosch's paintings are intriguing and partly obscure at the same time. Many symbols, easily understood in his day, have now become less readable. Nevertheless, we can still look at Bosch's paintings today, enjoy them and understand his overall meaning, reflecting the time just before one of the greatest upheavals in European history, the Reformation and the event this inspired – the Peasant War in Germany.
Jenny Farrell is a lecturer, writer and an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.