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The haywain

Painting, 1515, 135×190 cm

Description of the artwork «The haywain»

The Haywain is a triptych by Hieronymus Bosch, a three-winged folding, like an altarpiece, but intended rather for individual meditation than for church use. Some researchers consider The Haywain the first triptych painted by Bosch (and date it 1502). Today, The Haywain is known in two versions, both of which are kept in Spain. One of them is presented in the Monastery of San Lorenzo in El Escorial (1, 2), the other one (described here) is in the Prado Museum in Madrid. Probably both belonged to King Philip II. The Prado dates its Haywain to 1515, whereas The Haywain from the El Escorial monastery palace may have been painted not by Bosch, but by one of his followers, in 1510—1520.

The outer shutters. Wayfarer (the Prodigal Son)
The outer shutters of The Haywain triptych present a bleak picture, but it is by no means fantastic. There is nothing infernal here, just ordinary things. A tall and skinny wayfarer wanders without any clear goal. His clothes are torn, his body is emaciated, and his forehead is wrinkled. Each step of the traveller convinces him that the world is deep in evil. A hungry, mangy dog with protruding ribs bares its teeth at him. Gnawed bones and a horse’s skull are lying white nearby, crows flock to them. A distant hillock is crowned with a gallows. On a nearby hill, robbers gut the belongings of a passer-by, perhaps a similar wayfarer, while he is tied to a tree. A little further away, peasant man and woman, surrounded by a herd of lambs, mindlessly dance to the bagpipes: they have nothing to do with what is happening nearby. Even the bridge, on which the wanderer is about to step, does not bode well: it is corroded by cracks and can collapse at any moment.

To anyone familiar with Bosch’s work, the wayfarer’s face may seem familiar. Indeed, this wise, sad look and recognizable features are repeated from picture to picture. Many are convinced (although there is no documentary evidence for this) that we have a self-portrait of Bosch. “His nose cannot be attributed to anyone else,” says scientist Nicholas Bohm (the BBC filmed The Mysteries of Hieronymus Bosch on the basis of his research).
The Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (Rotterdam) houses Bosch’s The prodigal son octagonal painting, the central figure in which is the same wanderer from the outer shutters of The Haywain triptych.

The left shutter. The Fall (The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise)

Therefore, life is a road, a long journey full of temptations and dangers. The wayfarer from the outside shutters of the triptych tunes the viewer to this idea. Now let’s see how it is supported from the inside, when the triptych appears in the open. The three inner panels are called Expulsion from Paradise"  The Haywain, and Hell.

Medieval painting often combines different time plans in one space. Bosch follows this principle. On the left panel, three most important episodes in the history of Adam and Eve find their place at once. The top shows how God the Father created Eve of the rib of sleeping Adam; in the middle part, the serpent tempts the first people to taste the fruit from the tree of knowledge; in the foreground is the finale of the heavenly life of Adam and Eve: the angel with a fiery sword expels them from the rocky gates of heaven.

Incredible spectacle takes place over the Garden of Eden: turned into insects, angels are falling from the sky. It turns out that not only people are guilty of the sin of pride. The angels also became proud, rebelled, and were overthrown by the archangel Michael, the leader of the heavenly army, for this. Bosch depicts a monstrous metamorphosis, how the angels change their essence: at the very top, in the clouds, during the last battle they are still angels, but, as they fall, they transform into insects. Of all the angelic attributes, they only have wings. But they won’t save them either: the buzzing swarm crumbles one by one into the sea on the horizon and dies. Bosch turned out to be the first artist in the history of world painting, who came up with the idea of linking two events — the expulsion of the rebellious angels from heaven and the expulsion of the first people from paradise.

In the interpretation of the social pessimist Bosch, Eden turns out to be not such a heavenly place, because even there, there is no peace or grace.

The central panel. The Haywain

Between heaven (left) and hell (right) is the Central part, which gave the name to the whole triptych – the Haywain. This is the image of the earthly world. Bosch’s picture of the world order. 

Why did Bosch choose such an allegory to depict the existing world order — a wagon of hay? The origins should be sought in Dutch folklore. There is a proverb saying that the world is a wagon of hay, and everyone tries to grab a larger piece of it. A similar image is preserved in folk songs. One of them tells that God put all earthly goods in one heap, just like the villagers rake all the hay into a haystack. This heap is for everyone and should be fairly divided among all. However, greedy people are pushing their elbows, trying to snatch more from the haystack. In pursuit of earthly blessings, people do not realize how insignificant they are. After all, hay is a cheap commodity. In Flemish, the word “hooi” means both “hay” and “nothing”. The song refrain plays on this pun, pessimistically saying, that thing will eventually turn out to be “hooi”.

However, this does not stop Bosch’s subjects. They are eager to get to the cherished hay. They push each other apart, set up ladders, pull spears. Some die under the wheels of the wain. Some are ready to cut their neighbour’s throat. Researchers believe that in this triptych, the number of fights depicted by Bosch is greater than in any of his other paintings.

Greed (insatiability, self-interest) turns out to be the mother of all vices. It does not divide the world into rich and poor. In Bosch’s The Haywain, all social sections are represented: artisans and peasants, soldiers and monks, scientists and non-scientists, men and women. The carriage is followed by a cavalcade of the mighty of this world - the Emperor and the Pope (the Bosch scholar Walter Bosing claims that one can recognize a specific person in him, Pope Alexander VI). They do not take part in the general crush just because they already own most of the earthly goods. However, both the Emperor and the Pope thoughtlessly and blindly follow the chariot heading straight to hell.

At the top of the stack, happy lovers are having fun. Below, people are doing their little things: robbing and fooling, indulging in gluttony and drunkenness, cheating and adultery. And no one cares about the fact that vile monsters in rat, fish and toad guises carry away the haywain to the underworld. In the everyday sinful bustle, people have lost their perspective. They are not aware of either themselves or the direction of their movement. Only the angel at the top of the haywain prays to Christ who is visible in heaven, but the well-fed demon clearly “outweighs” him. Bosch’s conclusion is disappointing: the influence of evil on people is much more tangible and effective than the principles of God’s commandments.

The right shutter. Hell

Hellfire blazes on the horizon with crimson reflections. Witches rush across the sky. And in the foreground, work is in full swing: here the devils “recycle” sinners. Bosch makes a rather bold interpretation of what is happening in hell: it turns out that everything there is subordinated to the construction of the devil’s tower. Perhaps this is a parody of the famous Tower of Babel, a symbol of arrogant humanity and defeat and strife inevitably following the pride. But there is another version. Saint Gregory wrote that houses in paradise were built of golden bricks, each of which was a good deed. Perhaps the theologically educated Bosch gives a mirror version of such a construction: a tower in hell is made up of human sins, or, according to the monk José de Sigüenza (El Escorial historian and one of the first interpreters of Bosch), the tower consists of “souls that have been lost forever”.


For quite a long time, researchers could not link the meaning of the subjects of the external and internal panels. Now more and more often the idea is voiced that the relationship between them is the relationship between the private and the general. Closed shutters show a story about how evil and sin are refracted in a specific human destiny (perhaps even in the fate of the artist himself). The opened altarpiece is an all-encompassing story of evil: its origin, growth and inevitable ending.

Thus, The Haywain triptych is a kind of literal and detailed “biography of evil”. This is a coherent pictorial story of how evil was born (The Fall, left shutter), spread throughout the world (The Haywain, the central part of the triptych) and how it will be punished (Hell, the right shutter).

Author: Anna Vcherashnyaya

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About the artwork

Art form: Painting

Subject and objects: Religious scene, Allegorical scene

Style of art: Northern Renaissance

Technique: Oil

Materials: Wood

Date of creation: 1515

Size: 135×190 cm

Artwork in selections: 76 selections