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Hieronymous Bosch : “Death and the Miser” (c. 1485-1490)

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This allegorical panel is thought to have been influenced by the Ars Morendi; two popular Latin texts, dating from about 1415 and 1450, on the art of dying well. Death enters a darkened chamber, where a dying man’s soul hangs in the balance. As an angel draws his attention toward the crucifix seated in his small window, an insidious demon, emerging from behind a red curtain, slips a bag of gold into his hand. Infrared reflectograms have revealed that the miser was originally drawn having accepted both the gold and a decorated goblet, but Bosch opted instead for greater dramatic tension and ambiguity.

The National Gallery in Washington observes that “Oppositions of good and evil occur throughout the painting. A lantern containing the fire of Hell, carried by the demon atop the bed canopy, balances the cross which emits a single ray of divine light. The figure in the middle ground, perhaps representing the miser earlier in his life, is shown as hypocritical; with one hand he puts coins into the strongbox where they are collected by a rat–faced demon, and with the other he fingers a rosary, attempting to serve God and Mammon at the same time. A demon emerging from underneath the chest holds up a paper sealed with red wax — perhaps a letter of indulgence or a document that refers to the miser’s mercenary activities.”

It is generally assumed that Death and the Miser was once part of an altarpiece, but scholars differ on the location of the panel within the altarpiece and on what other works might have been associated with it. It may have been the inside right panel of a divided triptych. The Ship of Fools and Allegory of Gluttony and Lust would have comprised the left inside panel, with The Wayfarer appearing on the outside.

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