Table of the Seven Deadly Sins1505 - 1510. Oil on poplar panel, 119.5 x 139.5 cm.
Two banderoles, one above and the other below the central circle, contain Latin texts from Deuteronomy (32: 28-29 and 20), warning against the wages of sin. The upper banderole, between the tondos of Death and the Last Judgment, reads: Gens absq[ue] [con]silio e[st] et sine prudentia // deutro[m]y 32 [um//] utina[m] sapere[n]t [et] i[n]telligere[n]t ac novissi[m]a p[ro]videre[n]t (For they are a nation void of counsel, neither is there any understanding in them. O that they were wise, that they understood this, that they would consider their latter end!). The lower banderole, set between Hell and Glory, reads: Absconda[m] facie[m] mea[m] ab eis: et [con]siderabo novissi[m]a eo[rum] (I will hide my face from them, I will see what their end shall be). Man, bereft of reason, seems to have set out in unbridled pursuit of the Seven Deadly Sins. Yet all is not lost: Christ, portrayed in the innermost ring of the large central roundel, is ever alert. According to the Latin inscription beneath him: Cave cave d[omin]us videt (Beware, beware, the Lord is watching). These three texts link God’s omnipresence with man’s freedom and the fruits of sin. As in The Haywain (P02052), the dismantled Pilgrimage of Life triptych and The Garden of Earthly Delights (P02823), the message conveyed by the Table of the Seven Deadly Sins is that Hell awaits those who stray from God’s path.
Bosch represents the message in five circles. At the centre of the largest, central circle, which resembles a huge eye or a concave mirror, Christ is shown rising from his tomb as the Man of Sorrows, displaying the wound in his side. A similar image is to be found in The Mass of Saint Gregory on the closed shutters of the Prado Adoration of the Magi (P02048). It is an appeal to the faithful, urging them to follow the path that Jesus has shown them and to meditate on his death on the cross for the forgiveness of man’s sins. This innermost circle or pupil is surrounded by gilded rays stretching to the outer ring, which is divided into seven segments of varying size, each depicting one of the seven Deadly Sins, identified by an inscription. Bosch conveyed this moral teaching through everyday situations involving people from different social classes, observed by the all-seeing eye of God. Yet, regardless of the message, some of the scenes -particularly Gluttony- mark him out as a pioneer in genre painting, which was later to acquire such importance.
Anger or Wrath (ira), placed in a privileged position with regard to the banderoles and the figure of Christ, occupies the space traditionally held by Pride and Envy as the sources of all human sin. Here, it is depicted in the form of a drunken brawl outside a tavern. Moving anticlockwise, the next segment represents Pride, as a woman preening herself in a mirror held up by a devil. Lust shows two courtly couples dallying in a tent, with entertainment provided by a jester. Sloth is personified by a man asleep by the fire, unwilling to devote himself to prayer. The family embodying Gluttony gorge themselves with food and drink. Greed is conveyed by a magistrate accepting a bribe, and in Envy a couple clearly covet the falcon being shown off by a rich man, whilst two dogs fight over a bone.
At the corners of the Table, four smaller circles contain representations of the Last Things, Death, the Last Judgment, Hell and Glory. The scene in the Death tondo closely resembles that depicted in Death and the Miser in Washington, but here the protagonist is receiving the last rites, and the angel has clearly won the contest. Bosch’s treatment of the Last Judgment echoes the tradition of Rogier van der Weyden, with the dead rising from their tombs. In Glory, Saint Peter welcomes the souls of the blessed to Heaven, represented as a Gothic building with a shining gold background. Bosch offers a more personal view of Hell, with sinners receiving the punishments they deserve.
Poplar wood cannot be dated dendrochronologically, so it is impossible to fix a terminus post quem for this panel. However, the style and some of the costumes -particularly the hats- suggest that it was probably painted in around 1505-10, that is, late in Bosch’s career. Most of the scholars who reject Bosch’s authorship of this panel take as their starting-point a passage in Felipe de Guevara’s Comentario de la pintura, written in around 1560 and first published by Antonio Ponz in 1788, in which it seems to suggest that the Table of the Seven Deadly Sins was the work of an unnamed gifted follower of Bosch. In my view, however, the passage is ambiguous and, rather than a possible connection between this follower and the work in the Prado, it would seem to refer to the genre of painting to which it corresponds. It seems unlikely that Felipe de Guevara would tell Philip II, albeit indirectly in the form of a book (unpublished until 1788), that the panel of which he was so fond was not in fact by Bosch. Indeed, the king still regarded it as an original when he sent it to El Escorial in 1574, and throughout the time it hung in his private apartment, that is, until his death. Moreover, at that point Felipe de Guevara could no longer distinguish between Bosch originals and copies; he thought, for example, that the version of The Haywain sold by his heirs to Philip II in 1570 was by the master’s own hand; technical analysis has since revealed that it is a copy of the original in the Museo del Prado. The king sent it to El Escorial in 1574, and it remains there today.
The Table of the Seven Deadly Sins is signed by Bosch, and there is no evidence to suggest that the signature is apocryphal. Certain features of the underdrawing -including the wide range of kinds of strokes also found in The Haywain- are found in other late Bosch works, which also share a similar approach to the execution of the painting stage. If this were not enough to confirm Bosch’s authorship, the highly original design of the composition -a truly inventive forerunner to genre painting- could hardly be the work of some nameless follower. Perhaps the only other painter capable of such inventiveness was the second Bosch, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525/30-1569). As for its provenance, nothing is known of the painting’s first owner, its destination or its purpose. According to Felipe de Guevara’s Comentario de la pintura, it was in Philip II’s possession before 1560. We do not know how it came into his hands, but we may assume either that he acquired it during his time in Flanders or that he ordered it to be purchased there. Nor do we know where it hung before the king sent it to El Escorial in 1574 (Text drawn from Silva, P.: Bosch. The 5th Centenary Exhibition, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2016, pp. 302-312).