Death and the Miser
From a quick glance at some of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450-1516), you would be forgiven for assuming that he was mad. But you would be wrong. He was a highly intelligent man, a respected and successful artist who had many important patrons. While to our modern eye his peculiar and fantastical creations seem strange and surreal, his pictorial symbolism would have communicated clearly to the viewers of his day. We know very little about Bosch. He was born in ‘s-Hertogenbosch in northern Brabant (now the southern Netherlands) around the middle of the fifteenth century. He and his workshop received major religious commissions from the Brotherhood of Our Lady based in his hometown, as well as noblemen such as the Duke of Burgundy and Hendrik of Nassau. Only around thirty identifiable works by Bosch still exist, none of which are dated.
The subject of death is a common one in the art of the 15th century, whether directly (in this painting, for example) or indirectly. Traditions in Netherlandish painting of vanitas or memento mori – literally ‘remember death / that you will die’ – were particularly popular, and brought the theme into people’s houses and the forefront of their minds. They reminded the onlooker to live with an awareness of life’s fragility and to live in accordance with religious beliefs about how their actions would be reflected in the afterlife. Therefore, images of death and dying were not seen as morbid or something to turn away from, but guiding and life-affirming, a buffer for the God-fearing person along the path of the righteousness. The Ars Moriendi, a popular handbook on how to navigate one’s way through life and achieve salvation would have been widely put to use after the wake of the Black Death. It is thought that this painting depicting Death and the Miser (c. 1485/1490) is either taken from or inspired by the text.
This panel was probably a wing of a triptych, and as such was intended for spiritual contemplation. It draws upon the sins and vices of the ordinary man and prompts the viewer to consider their own in relation to the afterlife to come. Over a step and through a pointed archway we see into a bedroom. A man (the miser) sits up in a grand canopied bed with costly red hangings. His shirtless torso is pale and thin, his skin wrinkled and greying. A very Boschian beastie, a weird fish-headed creature, has emerged from under the curtains to offer the dying man a bag of treasure. Although this will shortly be of no use to him, the man hesitates with his hands outstretched as his attention is drawn to the open door on our left. The shrouded character of Death, his foot literally in the door, enters and pokes a spindly arrow towards the man. An angel kneels on the bed, his hand on the man’s shoulder as he gestures towards a crucifix in the window aperture above the head of Death. A piercing beam of light reaches out to the man. The angel has been distracted too, his mouth is agape as he notices a demon peeking over the canopy of the bed with a perilously fiery lantern. The converging lines of the sunbeams and Death’s arrow both point directly to the man, suggesting that his end could go either way depending on his next decision; to take put his soul in the hands of the skeletal figure of death, or to be turned to the light by a heavenly being.
In front of the bed, another scene in the narrative unfolds. A large chest is held open by a knife. An elderly man dressed in green (thought by some to be the miser himself) drops golden coins into a bowl being held up by a mouse-type creature. With his other hand, he holds a walking stick and a rosary, perhaps trying to veil his money-gathering greed with piety even into old age. Inside the box, we also see some stacked silver cups and a sort of desk with a wax-sealed document upon it. Two other beasts are under the chest, one slinks away while the other holds up another document. It not known what these papers represent, perhaps some kind of secular deed pertaining to a loan considering its proximity to the money, or it could be a religious indulgence, both equally immoral. In the foreground, a strange gargoyle-like winged thing leans indifferently with his head resting on his hand. He is not interested in what happens here and seems impatient for it to all be over with. Yet the way Bosch has paused time upon a pivotal moment in the story allows us to weigh up the possible conclusion to the man’s fate. On the ground before us, components of a suit of armour and weapons have been discarded. Some have speculated that it could hint at the past occupation of the man, a life of killing and sin. But more poignantly, I think that the objects serve to contrast the exposed and fragile body of the man on his deathbed.
This scene as a whole is ambiguous, but this adds to the mystery and allows us to read into the image more freely. Other than the supernatural beings and phantom image of his life thus far, this mortal man is ultimately alone. His sin of greed calls to be addressed in his final moments on earth as his redemption hangs in the balance. As living humans, Bosch calls to us to turn our attention inwards, to understand our impermanence and to take the action required to live a good moral life and attain salvation.
If you want to learn more about Bosch and see his works in hi-res online, I recommend the Bosch Project website: http://boschproject.org/#/artworks/Death_and_the_Miser