The seven deadly sins and the four last things – Bosch

Now…before I even begin to talk about the art work or that fantastic nutter, Hieronymus Bosch, there is an arguement that this painting may not have been his, but done by one of his students.  As we know with Michelangelo, signatures where not always a big thing in art previously as I guess for the time, they were very much less concerned with identify theft or artistic ownership.  This said the piece is signed, but the signature has been contested.  This work most recently came in to question in 2015 and was disputed by the Bosch Research Conservation Project, but the Prado scholars have once again dismissed this arguement more in favour that this one was of Bosch’s early works where he had not yet harnessed his full imagination.

Regardless of the argument there is no doubt this is in the unique style of Bosch, and personally I favour the theory that this is his, so that is what I’m going to run with since it’s going to be very difficult to call him up and ask him about the authenticity of the piece.

Dated around 1500 this is painted in oils on wood panels.

As in a lot of Bosch’s paintings, he is very taken with the mortal failings of humans, often dipicting hell, or torture of sinning people, so the content of this one is no different.

Lets look at the 7 sins first.

Wrath (Ira)

This is the bottom section of the central circle.  I will work clockwise through the circle. We can see a well dressed women breaking up a fight between two peasents.  The scene looks as though it is set before a public house, and both men are hinted at as being drunk.  Garments are cast aside and knives drawn, one of the men looks to be wearing a piece of furniture on his head for protection…very wise.

Envy (Invidia) 

A couple stand in their doorway looking on at a man holding a hawk.  He is dressed in white and has a bag full of what we can assume is money tied around his waist.  The audience is supposed to assume that it is his servant to the right hand side carrying a heavy load for him.  The envious couples daughter flirts through the window with another rich man, but her eyes are on the purse at his waists.  Below the couple 2 dogs are waiting eagerly for the bone in the mans hand….but this will cause further envious disagreement as goes the Flemish saying “two dogs, one bone, no agreement”.

Greed (Avaricia)

A judge listens to the pleas of the man before him as he takes a back handed bribe from the man behind him.  The scholars to the side debate the case which will be over thrown and the book of justice on a table untouched by the judge.

Gluttony (Gula) 

This one is two fold, for the gluttony of food and equally the gluttony of drink.  So we see a skinny man dressed in rags drinking from a jug.  His appearance not a bother to him as his drinks himself to oblivion.  At the table is a rotund man, eating everything at the table, whilst ignoring the equally large child at his legs.  (I have to say that the child does just look like a small adult and it creeps me out a little).  The child is dirty as the wife of the man is too concerned with bringing them food over the health and hygiene of the child.  I also don’t like the look of the roast chicken….sushi grade chicken is not for me.

Sloth (Accidia)

A man dozes in front of the fire place, his dog a sleep at his feet, as faith comes to him in a dream carrying the bible and rosary beads reminding him to say his prayers.

Lust (Luxuria)

Probably the one I would link least to the sin it is representing.  Two couples enjoying a picnic in a pink tent as two clowns entertain them…but look at the instruments cast aside on the ground, the harp and the flute.  These instruments are mentioned in the bible and they have been cast to one side as buffoonery (oh yes I went there) and flirtation happen in a public place.  This had originally been extravagance (which would have made much more sense, which the lavish picnic, a tent dyed pink…think of all the crushed beetles! And the clowns) but it was changes to lust at a later date.

Pride (Superbia)

A women stands in a well kept room with her back to the audience as she stares at herself in a mirror held by a demon.  A cat looks on at her from the door way.  Her rosary beads to one side in a bag.

In the center of this circle we see Christ emerging from his tomb, with the inscription of cave, cave, Deus Videt.  Meaning “Beware, beware, God sees”.  A closer look at the central circle as a whole, stepping away from the detail, we see a representation of an eye…The Eye! Of God watching each of the sinners.

Above and below the centre circle, there are further Latin inscriptions taken from Deuteronomy.  The upper scroll says (and I won’t attempt to write the Latin, as while I like to think I know everything…Latin is not the biggest part of my repotoire) “for they are the nation void of counsel, neither is there any understanding in them”.  While the lower banner says “O that they were wise, that they understood this, that they would consider their latter end!”.

The text used is supposed to serve as a reminder of God’s omnipresence with mans freedom and the fruits of sin.  God’s eye in the centre reminding the audience that hell awaits them should they stray from the path of the righteous.

But…what are the last four things about? 

Death of the sinner 

Upper left circle.  We see the sinner on his death bed, men and women of the church around him, as an angel and a demon sit of his bed head.  I imagine the church folk are urging him to repent his sins as we know the lord is forgiving and repenting could ease the judgement.  From around the bed head, death peers, ever close for this scene. In another room the women of his family prey for the sinners soul.


Top right circle. We see naked bodies as the representation of souls laid bare, ready and waiting their judgment looking up at their saviour while others try to hide from the eyes of the heavenly court.


Bottom right circle.  St. Peter greets the souls of the blessed as they pass through the gates of heaven, angels are playing the instruments which were so brazenly cast aside in the scene of lust.  The scene is welcoming and a reminder of what a life of virtue will lead to.


Bottom left corner.  It’s no coincidence that the death of the sinner and hell sit on the left hand side of the picture.  This being the side that Lucifer sat at God’s side before falling from grace. The scene of hell, is probably the most reminiscent of others of Bosch’s pictures.  Demons represented as scary looking animalistic creatures, torture the condemned souls in the manner of their sins.  You can see greed, being punished by being boiled in a cauldron of gold.  Pride is being forced to look at their naked bodies in a mirror held by a demon, greed…sat at a table being force fed food of the demons.  Wrath appears to be having their genitals removed, but I think that this is actually just supposed to represent being stabbed by the sword that was drawn.  Envy is way off in the distance, being chased by the dogs they taunted. Lust has a big luxurious bed, but no privacy as demons intervene.  Finally sloth , stripped and forced to bow to a demon as a demonic representation of faith holds a loft a hammer…I don’t want to think about what is going to be hammered considering the position.

Ultimately this is painting shows everyday sinners and then a private view of how Bosch perceived the last rights.  It’s inventive, genius and dark.  The humour isn’t lost in the scene of hell, but also the stark message of what a sinners life will bring you.  Not being religious myself in any way, I find this an intriguing perception of the sins and punishment but also the perceived glory of a meek life.

I know this has been a fairly long post, but works such as this deserve the detail to be notice.  Like this article? Have a painting you’d like me to give my view of?  Why not tell me in the comments…I might not know about it, but I’m happy to give it a bash.


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