Hieronymus Bosch’s Hell was of interest to Surrealist painters—and fascinates and puzzles viewers today. An essay by University Professor Larry Silver answers questions about one of Bosch’s most intriguing works. “Hieronymus Bosch, Tempter and Moralist” is one of those surprising must-read pieces that turn up on the net. This one is in Per Contra.
“But the Hell panel would have been the most unsettling element for the nobility viewing the Garden of Delights. Many of its dangerous or threatening elements allude specifically to prosperity and power.
For example, in the lower right corner, all of the trappings of property and possessions are undercut. There a pig, the animal of Gluttony still in Pieter Bruegel’s drawing (1557) for the Seven Deadly Sins series of prints, wears a nun’s habit and embraces a nervous and naked man while pressing a quill pen into his hand for signature of a legal document, marked by a pair of bright red seals. In front of this unequal couple a crouching monster with a bird’s beak crouches within a large knight’s helm and holds the ink and quills. Behind the figures a human messenger bears additional sealed documents; however, his golden badge is surmounted with a toad (Bruegel’s animal in his 1556 drawing of Avarice, London, British Museum), thus revealing his infernal purposes. All of these elements point to the wealth and status of the naked man. Indeed, they are the same worldly possessions to be found, again held by demons, at the foot of the bed in Bosch’s Death of the Usurer (Washington).
Specific references to money appear in the opposite side of the Hell panel. One group of individuals at left are surrounded by the instruments of games and gambling: dice, cards, and a strikingly modern-looking backgammon board. …”