Bosch the Moralist

by Larry Solomon, copyright © 2002, 2005

Bosch's paintings function to support Christian morality as seen within his cultural context, i.e., it is one that promotes the teachings and moral position of Christ and the Saints of the Church precluding the Protestant Reformation. Just before the Reformation, there was unrest in northern Europe. The climate was ripe for revolution. Catholic clergy were thought to be corrupt by educated citizens and leaders. Catholic Inquisitions were common, resulting in the persecution of dissenting leaders like Joan of Arc, as witches and wizards. The Church reacted paranoically to heresies with executions and threatened people with warnings of a Judgment day where sinners would be condemned to burn in hell, tortured by demons and devils. Bosch's paintings were a part of this environment, and were probably commissioned by moral leaders who were trying to moderate the corruptions and indulgences they saw not only among clergy but among ordinary citizens as well. Thus, Bosch's art moralized that a life of sin and a hedonistic indulgence in sensual pleasure would lead to certain condemnation in Hell. Moral heroes were set upon pedestals as models of behavior, such as the Saints Bosch portrayed in some of his paintings. Those who indulged in sin and did not follow their example were shown tormented by monsters, devils, and Satan himself. Bosch's art visually warned against the temptations of ephemeral pleasure, greed, envy, gluttony, vanity, madness (or anger), lust, sloth, and deceit. He pictured everyday life surrounded by devils and monsters who were continuously trying to tempt and corrupt people. His paintings were designed as warnings to sinners, of their condemnation to eternal punishment.

One of the early paintings that demonstrates Bosch's moralistic intentions is found in the link between inscribed words and images in the tabletop composition known as the Seven Deadly Sins, showing images of pride or vanity (Superbia), lust (Luxuria), sloth (Accidia), avarice (Avaricia), gluttony (Gula), envy (Invidia), and anger (Ira) in a circular composition. The whole circle presents an eye in whose center resides the Lord. Just below the pupil are inscribed the words "Cave cave dns (dominus) videt", "Beware, the Lord sees". On the scroll above and below are warnings "Men are fools who do not understand that they will have to pay for their sins." Four smaller circular compositions surround the central eye. These represent Death and Judgement at the top, and Heaven and Hhell at the bottom. Click on the Hell scene (lower left circle) to see the punishments that are associated with each sin.

Click on any of the hotspots on the following circular tabletop to see Bosch's specific representation of each.

Gluttony Anger Vanity Envy Lust avarice gluttony sloth Hell They know not I will hide my face Judgement Day Dying Welcome to Heaven