Criticism — From the August 2016 issue

Abandon All Hope

Hieronymus Bosch comes home

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In the absence of Earthly Delights, the star attraction at Visions of Genius is The Haywain. When I visit after the show has opened to the public, there are almost as many people crowded in front of the triptych as there are depicted in its famously populous central panel, which is kind of apt given what the painting has to say: we’re going to Hell. All of us. In hard-edged, high-keyed pinks and blues and yellows, all manner of humanity escort a wagon piled high with hay as it trundles, unbeknownst to them, toward damnation. As the art historian Walter S. Gibson notes, hay would have been familiar to early-sixteenth-century audiences as a metaphor both for the worthlessness of material goods and for deceit: “To ‘drive the haywain’ with someone,” he explains, “was to mock or cheat him.”

Photograph from ’s Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands, by Caspar Claasen

Photograph from ’s Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands, by Caspar Claasen

Thus the devil and his retinue entice us with the lie of worldly gain, grabbed at by the peasants and burghers in the foreground, who tussle over tufts of dried grass like bargain hunters on Black Friday. Bottom right, a fat friar sits guzzling ale as nuns stuff a sack with armfuls of hay purloined from the wagon. To the left, a pope (identified by some scholars as the libertine Alexander VI, object of Savonarola’s scorn), an emperor, and his courtiers follow on horseback, their conspicuous dignity ironized by their direction of travel. They’re all headed the same way. Above, ignored by everyone save an angel kneeling in prayer, a small and rather ineffectual Christ emerges from a pink-and-gold cloud, holding up his arms as if to say, “Uh, hello? Remember me?” The procession to Hell matches the drift of our interest: it’s no surprise to find the crowd that much thicker in front of the right panel. (In the left panel, the Expulsion from Eden, the Fall of Man, the Creation, and the Fall of the — horrible, insectoid — Rebel Angels are presented in vertical succession. Read against the left-to-right orientation of the central and right panels, the gist here seems to be that the Creation and Fall were as good as coeval, i.e., that Paradise was gone in the blink of an eye.)

You get the sense, talking to some Bosch aficionados, that liking him for his hellscapes and outlandish teratological imagination is a little non-U; what’s really interesting are his landscapes and depictions of the hermit saints. Whether you consider this good taste or contrarianism, there is evidence to suggest that Bosch’s popularity in the sixteenth century rested on his infernal scenes as much as it does today. “People like the dark stuff, they always have,” Richard Charlton-Jones, formerly senior director of old-master paintings at Sotheby’s, London, told me. “If all he’d ever done was pictures of Paradise, the demand would drop by half.” No one knows who commissioned The Haywain — or indeed most of the surviving works — but we can surmise, from an account written around 1560 by the Spanish humanist Felipe de Guevara, that Bosch was chiefly (and regrettably, in Guevara’s view) valued as an “inventor of monsters and chimeras.” At the foot of The Haywain’s right panel, a sinner’s bare legs protrude from the mouth of a fish-creature with stockinged human legs for fins: a palindrome made flesh. Above, a toad chews on a philanderer’s privates while another naked figure, looking back toward the central panel as if there’s been some mistake, is bundled off to his perdition by a bipedal deer and a fish-faced demon in a cowl and studded leather kilt. As Gibson points out, in terms of its complexity — and violence — the hellscape in The Haywain falls somewhere between the spare composition of The River to Hell panel, from the Palazzo Grimani in Venice, and the right-hand panels of The Garden of Earthly Delights and the Vienna Last Judgment.

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is the author of Pub Walks in Underhill Country (Penguin), a novel. His article “Blast from the Past” appeared in the December 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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