The "Haywain" Triptych by Hieronymus Bosch

PureInsight | July 5, 2004


About Hieronymus Bosch
Hieronymus Bosch (1450 – 1516) was a Dutch painter of the "Late Gothic" style, which was known as the northern counterpart of the Early Renaissance. He is famous for his fantastic, demon-filled works. Renowned psychologist Carl Jung called Bosch "the master of the monstrous."

The extraordinary Bosch stands apart from the prevailing Flemish painting tradition. His style was unique, strikingly free, and his symbolism, unforgettably vivid, remains unparalleled to this day. At the time of his death, Bosch was internationally celebrated as an eccentric painter of religious visions who dealt in particular with the torments of hell. During his lifetime, Bosch's works were in the collections of noble families of the Netherlands, Austria, and Spain. Other painters imitated his style in a number of their paintings throughout the 16th century, particularly evident in the works of Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Very little is known about Bosch, which somehow seems fitting since his work is so enigmatic. Bosch spent his entire artistic career in the small Flemish town of Hertogenbosch, from which he derived his name. He belonged to an ultra-orthodox religious community called the Brotherhood of Mary. Many of his paintings are devotional, and several are based on the theme of the Passion. Bosch painted some altar pieces [1] for the Cathedral of Saint John's, Hertogenbosch, all of which are now lost. The artist probably never went far from home, although records exist of a commission in 1504 from Philip the Handsome (later king of Castile) for a [lost] "Last Judgment" altarpiece.

The Haywain Triptych (1485 – 1490)


Left wing: Eden
Center: Earth - wagonload of hay symbolizes sin, which the greedy world tries to grasp.
Right wing: Hell - the demons pull the wagon with the people into hell.

A triptych consists of three paintings; one central, large painting flanked, on either side by a smaller panel, frequently used as an altarpiece.

The subject of sin and its punishment was central to all of Bosch's art. Besides "The Garden of Earthly Delights," "the Haywain" (1485-90; Prado, Madrid) is another triptych that contains a similar progression of sin across its panels, from Eden to Hell. The central panel represents sin through the metaphor of a large wagonload of hay for which a greedy world grasps. All the while, demons pull the wagon towards the right panel - which shows one of Bosch's earliest depictions of hell.

God appears in the top portion of "Eden," with a globe in his hand that symbolizes the universe. The three scenes below depict "The creation of Eve," "Tasting the forbidden fruit," and "Adam and Eve being cast from Eden," in chronological order. Early Renaissance works typically used this technique, to present scenes in chronological order so that they can be read like a story.

Bosch's "Haywain" (Hay Wagon) comes directly from the Flemish proverb, "The world is a haystack, and each man plucks from it what he can." A haystack is a metaphor for earthly fame, wealth and desires that are transitory, corrupting and of insignificant value. The demons exploit men's hungry pursuits of their desires and pull them into hell.

In the central panel, men and women are surrounding the hay wagon, fighting for a share of hay with all their might. They will go as far as killing others to obtain a share of the hay. A group of priests and nuns in the right bottom corner have already obtained a sack of hay. Some of them are dividing and storing the hay, while others are already savoring the hay. Even kings, bishops and aristocrats are anxiously pursuing the hay right behind the wagon. No one realizes that demons are pulling the wagon into hell in the right panel. Bosch's painting vividly illustrates this Flemish proverb.

Is there anyone in the world who can resist the temptation of the hay? For a moment one would think that the musicians and lovers sitting on top of the wagon seem impervious to earthly temptations, but a closer look reveals that a winged, white demon is playing a flute with his nose. Another demon is lurking behind the tree with a long stick with a can hanging on its tip, a symbol of lust. Perhaps Bosch is implying that all human desires, even those that appear to be "above all desires" (on top of the hay) such as love and music, are an attachment and can be subject to the demons' exploitation. Terrifying and pessimistic it may be, the painting also shows God's compassion. An angel with wings is kneeling next to the musicians, looking anxiously and helplessly at God in the sky, as if he is asking for God's help to save the mankind.

Like "The Garden of Earthly Delights," the right panel of "Haywain" depicts Bosch's vision of hell. The crimson sky bears an atmosphere of horror and torment. Some sinners are being chased and devoured by demons. Some were being herded into a prison tower. A gallows atop the prison tower depicts the hung body of an executed sinner.

Bosch belonged to the Brotherhood of Mary, a religious sect that was very much concerned with the Last Judgment, eternal damnation and the all-pervading demons of evil. It is obvious that Bosch did not paint demons and hell to celebrate the existence of demons. On the contrary, Bosch's art tries to tell people that good will ultimately be rewarded with good and evil will ultimately meet with evil. It is his way of teaching people to conduct themselves morally correct and according to God's laws.

[1] An altarpiece is a carving, painting, sculpture, screen or decorated wall made for a Christian church altar, the table at which mass is said. These pieces vary enormously in size and concept, from tiny portable pictures to huge structures, embracing the arts of architecture, sculpture and painting. The altarpiece traditionally rests on the altar, but it is also found behind or even above. The center of the altarpiece features a depiction of Christ, the Virgin Mary or a saint, with the side panels generally showing scenes relating to the life of the central figure. These are presented in chronological order and can be read like a story.

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