the wanderer: Haywain and a harvest of pessimism

Another of Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych’s, called The Hay-Wain is almost as complex as The Garden of Earthly Delights and carries a similar message of desperate pessimism; a message that delivers itself into the arms of darkness and madness. On the backs of the side panels, which can be closed to cover it, there is a single picture, brilliantly painted but bitter and sad: a poor, elderly, homeless peddler defending himself with a stick against a snarling dog.

"We can only guess. A tentative explanation is left to the novelist. No art historian who is concerned about his professional reputation will touch this question. Did Bosch paint the triptych in an attack of anger over the unpaid bill Philip owed him for the Vienna Last Judgment triptych? This would be the simplest answer. However any explanation has also to consider the political situation in 1501, the existence of the atrocious Antonius Triptych of 1502 - and Bosch's nemsis, the apostatized Jacob von Almaengien, who unexpectedly appears most prominently for the third time on the outside of this Bosch triptych. It is separated and kept at the Prado. " Read More:

In the background on one side a couple are dancing to a shepherd’s bagpipe; on the other, a traveler is being robbed and stripped and tied to a tree. In the distance there are a gibbet and a torture wheel; in the foreground, the skull and leg bone of a horse, with two carrion crows. Who is this peddlar? Is he the type of virtuous soul, exiled and wandering through an alien world? Might his face be a self-portrait of Hieronymus Bosch? Thematically, it correlates closely with his painting “The Prodigal Son” The prodigal son stands in the centre of both pictures. He looks back with a melancholy and a somewaht teary and glassy-eyed gaze.  There is a pallor around the mouth in both as well as a dog and a stick.  The figure’s thoughts hover between past and future. The soul can apprehend the inevitability of what is to come. It almost seems a play on the legend of the Wandering Jew:

“There are several ideological and psychological interpretations of the Wandering Jew legend in its Christian form
which interpret it generally as a symbol of the other. In Jungian terms it is identified as a Shadow figure or in Christian theological terms as the Antichrist or in literary historical terms as Cain or the Sacred Executioner. This projective nature of the figure can explain the negative characterization of Ahasver’s physical appearance as well as his total isolation from human (i.e. Christian) society. This otherness is also utilized for purposes of moral education in order to encourage generosity and hospitality …. Read More:

Bosch. Prodigal Son. "Bosch's self-criticism is by no means gentle, rather the opposite! The parable of the prodigal son had become for Bosch a picture of human life on earth. Living on earth certainly implies that one is far from the spiritual world and it also means that one is exposed to the influence of opposing spiritual forces, is tapping about in the dark, and lives in misery. It is interesting that the German word "Elend" (used in the parable in German to describe the prodigal's misery), once bore the meaning of exile -- he who lives in "Elend" or exile experiences doubts, deprivation and want." Read More: image:

Inside, this triptych is arranged in much the same way as the Garden of Earthly Delights: on the left, the Garden of Eden; on the right, hell; and in the center, a symbolic picture of human folly and sin. The depiction of  Paradise is complicated. Reading downward from top to bottom, it shows four scenes in a time sequence: first, God in heaven contemplating the fall of the rebellious angels, who are being transformed into hideous insectiform monsters- think Kafka and Metamorphosis-; then, God the Father creating Eve; next, the serpent tempting Eve; last, the expulsion of our first parents after they commit the first human sin. God’s own angels revolted against him; God’s first human creatures broke his commandment.

Hell, on the right, is surrounded by an atmosphere of smoke and flames and inhabited by strange demoniac beings, part or wholly animal in form. A few naked human souls are undergoing torture and being conducted or driven from left to right, farther into hell. In the middle, devils are busy building a strong tower so that, when we glance from left to right, we see God’s world failing and the world of the fiend’s succeeding and being strengthened.

---These comments, which are derived from Rosicrucian thinking and teaching, are important for the understanding of what follows. They also make it clear why the "prodigal son" -- man-- standing at the point of return to the land of his Father, cannot have a very good impression of himself. Saints are few in number, and Bosch did not wish to represent an "ideal" man here any more than in the "tree-man" (Hortus Deliciarum); rather a striving human-being in all his ambivalent manifestation. This human-being, this prodigal son, is a sinner who shows the characteristics of his imperfections.---Read More: image:

…This selective hospitality of course bears witness to a certain double standard in the moral education itself: the fact that the Wandering Jaw is a penitent Jew who actually has embraced Christianity and accepted Jesus Christ
makes him worthy of human kindness. This seems to be the primary function of the Christian legend of Ahasver: to clarify that Jews will be treated as human beings only if and when they convert to Christianity. This tendency can also be found in some 19th century texts of seemingly historical or philological character which actually serve as propaganda for the baptism of the Jews. Some of these texts were written by baptized Jews, some by Christian theologians. The French writer Reville concludes such a communication metaphorically, by stating that “The Wandering Jew is dead after having become reconciliated with Christ.” The same metaphor of the death or the burial of the Wandering Jew may be found in a quite different context in the treatise on the Jewish The ìmage of Ahasver plays a part in the complicated game of identities – the other in others and the other within oneself is
embodied in the Wandering Jew. Thus the Hebrew poet U.Z. Grinberg projected the sufferings of Jesus onto the Jews by using the Wandering Jew figure. Read More:

"There is no doubt that the Haywain expresses a metaphorical and pessimistic view of life. The outer panel depicts a pilgrim, poor and world-weary, journeying through a world of crime and hardship. When the triptych is opened, the explanation is again relatively obvious. The subject is the Garden of Eden, beginning with the birth of Eve and ending with Adam and Eve being chased out by an angry, sword-bearing angel. The crucially significant and unique middle panel illustrates the fall of man and the reasons behind it. All is greed, and grasping for a bit of straw. Emperors, kings, popes and their courtiers follow the haycart, which is drawn by demons and monsters straight to Hell. There are several scenes of death, murder, and lust… in fact, many of the seven deadly sins as well as some of the minor ones are represented. At this, Bosch was a master. All this is being witnessed by Jesus, up in the clouds, tormented and confused by the conduct and activity below. There is one symbolic angel, on top of the hay wagon, looking to Jesus. Everyone else is ignoring Him, entirely enslaved to personal, baser aspirations." Read More: image:

The large central panel shows a procession moving toward the right; that is, away from paradise and toward Hell. It contains many types of human beings, but it is led by demons.There are the Holy Roman Emperor, the pope, a scepter bearing king, and other VIP types. Before these notables, is a huge wagon laden with hay. Since hay is worthless except as fodder for livestock, it implies that the pursuits of human life are also worthless, futil

aterialistic and without value. It is rather like the proverb Byron put into an epigram:

The world is a bundle of hay,
Mankind are the asses who pull;
Each tugs it a different way,
And the greatest of all is John Bull.

And indeed, several people are grabbing for hunks of hay from the wagon. One man has fallen off his ladder still clutching his parcel, and two people are fighting over a sheaf. A kneeling angel prays for help, gazing up to heaven, where God the Son appears, but is seen by none except the angel.

Bosch. detail. Notice the knot in the tree of life. "As man approaches the end of his life, his thoughts are turned to the spiritual (other) world. He no longer stands as firmly in this world, and he begins to feel that his foothold has become precarious. He becomes insecure and begins to limp. With this in mind, it becomes clear to us why this weary traveller drags himself along with a shoe on one foot and a slipper on the other. In our picture, the right foot wears an excellent shoe, the left one an equally excellent slipper -- the quality of both again proves that he is no beggar. A shoe is worn outside the house, a slipper indoors. The shoe indicates the relationship to earthly life. One could regard this combination as indicating that this man is already moving in two worlds. The Dutch saying "To walk on one shoe and one slipper", today means that the individual has no money. This situation however can arise because the particular individual did not keep both feet on the ground in ordinary everyday life." Read More:

The groups of people surrounding the hay wagon typify various kinds of silliness and wrongdoing. A women quarreling with a cripple is about to knife him. A duelist has disarmed his opponent and it cutting his throat. Although we do not see who or what is pulling this wagon, it is preceded by a gang of devils all marching purposely rightward toward hell. Snarling cat faced, stag headed, fish bodied, beaked and furred like beings in a nightmare, they stride purposefully onward with an air of confidence and even triumph. Look at the energy and zest with which they move. They are victorious.

Even the Saviour has thrown up his arms to indicate helplessness. The original creation of angels and mankind went wrong, and the act of redemption through his sacrifice on the cross has proved to be useless. Humankind, in spite of God, is determined to go to Hell.

Interestingly, the pessimism of Bosch mirrors that of Walter Benjamin in his Critique of Violence; a complete destruction; nihilism as the only solution that would portend a fresh start:

The pessimistic dimension in Benjamin’s thought is revealed in his claim that the divine alone enables us
to speak of “justice.” Since there is no place in (secular) history  for this dimension – sometimes referred to as “messianic” – his utopianism strongly suggests a transformation of the utopian project. Real change is now conceived as possible only by the overthrow of history. From this perspective, each revolutionary effort to realize utopia – with which he explicitly identifies – is revealed as a vanity of the mythic force that confronts the messianic….Read More:

Most central to Benjamin’s project is the critique of allegory, understood as a real religious position. In a surrealistic manner his position is close to the Cabalistic, lacking a positive religious faith. His pessimism discloses the presence of violent conflict between two tendencies: a positive optimistic utopian tendency and a pessimistic – the latter culminating in a negative utopianism and merging into the tradition of thought of Jewish redemption. His pessimism discloses the presence of violence within the continuity of “the whole time everything is the same” as a cosmic fate, a fate grounded in mystic necessity. He regards reality as essentially tragic, jet not as a partial historical stage or as an accident, but as normality itself. “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’, in which we live is not an exception, but a rule.” Read More:

The fact that “everything continues as usual” is the eternal “catastrophe,” which according to Benjamin discloses the boundless dominance of the mythical. This is the basis of the “Kafka-like situation,” which determines the subject as described in the article “Franz Kafka.” The “original sin” makes itself present at each moment in history, and according to Benjamin it turns out to be a reaction to the subject’s being a victim of cosmic injustice permanently directed against him. …On the one hand, evil is regarded as effected by the gap between knowing good and doing evil, and on the other hand Horkheimer’s whole work is devoted to the effort to expose the progress of knowledge as a pseudo-progress. According to Horkheimer progress widens the gap between knowledge of good and moral action, and in this respect progress is a supreme expression of evil. This discrepancy is the foundation for pessimism since it prevents in principle doing the good, and since the presence of evil is disclosed as unpreventable.Read More:

One of the oddest interpretations of Bosch’s triptych is made by Erica Fromm in 1969. Her article is entitled, “The Manifest and the Latent Content of Two Paintings by Hieronymus Bosch: A Contribution to the Study of Creativity.” She is analyzing the Garden, as well as the Haywain, from a psychoanalytic predilection. Read More: For instance, she writes:

While Bosch could allow his polymorphous perverse fantasies to come close enough to consciousness to be observed
and made artistic use of by that ego, his fears about genitality may have remained unconscious, yet crept into “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” Whatever Bosch may have meant to portray consciously, he unconsciously revealed much about the dynamics of his own personality. When one studies the two beautiful, haunting, enigmatic paintings, one recognizes the tragedy of a homosexual, and perhaps also of an impotent man who dreamt and fantasized endlessly about all kinds of sexual pleasures; but whose punitive Super-Ego, severe castration fear, and sado-machochistic pre-genital fixation most likely prevented him from having normal, lusty sexual relations. Read More:

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