Table of the Seven Deadly Sins1450 - 1516. Oil on poplar panel, 119.5 x 139.5 cm.
This work from the painter’s early production shows five circles, a large central one that resembles an eye, with the seven deadly sins on its outer ring, and four smaller one in the corners that illustrate the aftermaths: Death, Judgment, Hell and Glory. It is therefore a moralizing work, as can be seen in the explicative texts added by the artist. Banners above and below the central circle bear Latin texts from Deuteronomy (chap. 32) that warn of the consequences of sin. The first reads: Gens absque consilio e [st] et sine prudentia / utina [m] sapere [n] t et i [n] telligere [n] t ac novissi [m] a providere [n] t [Because they are a people with neither understanding nor vision / if they were intelligent, they would understand this and would prepare for their end], and the second: Absconda [m] facie [m] mea [m] ab eis: e considerabo novissi [m]a eorum [I will hide my face from them: and I will see how they end].
Humanity seems to have lost its mind, man allows himself to be carried away by mortal sins. But not all is lost. Christ, depicted in the inner ring or pupil of the large ring, watches mankind, as is indicated in the Latin inscription alongside him: CAVE, CAVE D[OMIN]US VIDET [Careful, careful, God is watching].
This work by Hieronymus Bosch calls the faithful to follow the path indicated by Christ, and if he appears as the Lord of Sorrow it is so that those who contemplate his image reflect on the fact that he died to redeem the sins of man. Father Sigüenza confirmed the didactic and moralizing character of this painting at the beginning of the 17th century, as did Felipe de Guevara in 1560, when he mentioned this panel in Los Comentarios de la Pintura.
Bosch reproduces the seven deadly sins, identified by inscriptions, as scenes from daily life that illustrate customs and vices of that period. He arranges them in the outer ring of the large central circle in different sizes beneath a shared sky that is visible in both the four outdoor scenes and through the windows of the three indoor scenes. Given its position on the wheel, Bosch seems to concede a preeminent role to ire, but the subject, which had a considerable later importance in his work, begins here with gluttony.
By Bosch’s time, the contemplation of Christ’s image with the marks of his suffering in the Passion was not sufficient to move the faithful and keep them from sinning. They were impressed by the view of the End Times, which the painter includes in the panel’s four corners. Of these, the representation of Hell stands out in its depiction of the punishment corresponding to each of the sins. The first documentation of this panel places it in Philip II’s hands, although he may have owned it longer than is thought. At the very least, it was in his possession in 1560, when Felipe de Guevara’s Comentarios de la Pintura mentions it as the monarch’s property. In 1574, Philip II sent it to the monastery at El Escorial, where he ordered it hung in his room. Both the position of the texts on the two banners and that of Christ in the pupil confirm that it was originally intended to hang on a wall, as it did at El Escorial from 1574 to 1939, when it was taken to the Museo del Prado (Text drawn from Silva, P.: Pintura flamenca de los siglos XV y XVI. Guía, Museo del Prado, 2001, pp. 150-155).