Hieronymus Bosch - The seven deadly sins

by Alexandra Tuschka


If one wanted to depict the theme of the 7 deadly sins, artists usually chose two obvious solutions: a cycle series (like Bruegel's series of vices) or a depiction of all the personified vices in one motif. Bosch, on the other hand, chose a pictorial solution that was as unconventional as it was ingenious, arranging the vices around the divine eye so that the viewer could walk around the painting. Researchers believe that this motif may have served as a tabletop. The work was commissioned by the Spanish King Phllipp II and was one of his favorites within his own collection. He kept it in his private rooms. 

In the center, Jesus can be seen centrally in the type of the "Man of Sorrows", who shows his stigmata to the viewer. This type reminds especially of his intention to wash away the sins of the world. Further, a saying under this reinforces the admonition of God's omnipresence: keep, keep, God is watching, God is observing.


"Wrath" is shown to the viewer abruptly in the lower part, symbolized by a battle scene in which some furniture and clothing have already suffered. To the right, there is a woman in front of a mirror - she represents vanity. Later it was found that Bosch gave more space to anger and reduced the field of vanity. On the one hand, this is unusual, because vanity (also pride) was also considered the mother of all sins and often precedes them; in this case, however, because of the choice of motif, the example may have managed with a little less space without losing its moral content. For the other five sins - envy, greed, lust, gluttony and sloth - there are also concrete examples from real life. Bosch does not distinguish here between estates - one sees peasants and commoners, church members and aristocrats.


In the four circular insets in the corners of the picture, one sees, from top left to bottom right in the direction of reading, the four last things: a dying man receiving the last rites at his deathbed - demon and angel are already sitting at the bedside waiting for their turn -; Christ as the world's judge; the blessed being received by Peter at the gate of heaven; and hell. In the representation of hell it becomes clear that human behavior will be repeated here for eternities in torments of hell. A couple which has paid homage to lust in life, finds itself here in a bed - but now in the presence of demonic, tormenting creatures. The angry man is already being maltreated by a similar monster with a knife. The message is clear: As in life - so in death.


Hieronymus Bosch - The seven deadly sins

Oil on poplar wood, 1505 - 1510, 119.5 x 139.5 cm., Museo del Prado in Madrid