The Haywain Triptych1512 - 1515. Oil on panel
Bosch thus shows how man, irrespective of his social class or place of origin, is so possessed by the desire to enjoy and acquire material possessions that he allows himself to be deceived or seduced by the Devil. Thus the artist proposes that we should renounce earthly goods and the delights of the senses in order to avoid eternal damnation. The painting offers an exemplum of a different type to the ones commonly used at the time, in the sense that it is not a question of doing good but rather of avoiding evil and of adhering to this rule throughout life. In the closed triptych Bosch depicted the subject of the Pilgrimage of Life in full colour, rather than in grisaille or semi-grisaille as in the Rotterdam version of the subject. He shows a pedlar dressed in rags bent under the weight of his basket on his back and defending himself with his stick against a threatening dog. Despite his weak state, he has been able to fight off an attack of bandits and leave behind the pair of shepherds dancing to the bagpipe, which refers to lust. On the pilgrimage of his journey without destination, the direction of which is unknown to him, he has succeeded in avoiding the dangers of the road and knows that he must press on despite not knowing what may await him when he crosses the bridge. In the underdrawing Bosch depicted a cross behind the bridge which he eliminated in the final stage of execution, replacing it with a crucifix in a small altar located in the low tree beneath which a bagpipe-playing shepherd is seated, without anyone being aware of its presence. Every figure has its back to it and all of them have forgotten God, as in The Haywain.
The inside of the triptych is devoted to sin. The left panel depicts its origin, from the expulsion of the rebel angels to the expulsion from Paradise. Worthy of special mention is the way Bosch depicted the angels cast out of heaven for disobeying God, who metamorphose into monstrous hybrid figures. In the foreground the artist draws attention particular to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. The Archangel, his sword raised, prevents them from crossing the raised, anthropomorphic bridge that separates Paradise -the setting for the creation of Eve and the serpent’s tempting of her- from the world in which the life of man takes place following Adam and Eve’s sin.
In the central panel Bosch shows humanity dragged along by sin, following behind a haywain, which illustrates the verse from Isaiah 40: 6: All flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flowers of the field, referring to the ephemeral and perishable nature of earthly things. At the same time he illustrates a Flemish proverb which runs: The world is like a haywain and each man takes what he can. Attentively watched by Christ the Redeemer, all the different classes of society try to grab a handful of the hay, including the clergy, who are censured here for vices such as avarice and lust. Furthermore, they will stop at nothing to achieve their aim. In the meantime, daily life is seen taking place in the foreground, from the women looking after their children and going about their daily tasks to the tooth-puller. In contrast, the figures trying to get on to the wagon by whatever means they can fail to notice the devilish figures driving it who are leading them straight to Hell. Even less aware is the crowd following the haywain, led by the powerful of the earth riding on horseback -the Pope; the Emperor, wearing a crown similar to that of God the Father; a king, whose fleursde- lys on his crown associate him with the king of France; and a duke wearing a Burgundian headdress. Located between the despair of the guardian angel looking up towards Christ and the devil playing the trumpet, on the top of the haywain lust triumphs, encouraged by the music that accompanies the wealthy couple seated on the cart while their two servants frolic among the vegetation behind them.
In the right-hand panel Bosch depicts Hell in an equally innovative manner. In contrast to his other depictions of it, this one is still in the making. Like builders, the devils hurry to complete the circular tower, carrying their building materials up a long ladder located in the same position as the one that leans against the haywain, while others prepare the mortar in order to build the tower’s walls even higher. Concentrating on their labours, they have their backs to the devils who constantly bring in new sinners to receive their punishments.
The underdrawing is executed with brush and a very liquid medium. Owing to the thin, transparent nature of the pictorial layer, it has risen to the surface and is very visible in numerous places. In general, Bosch drew rapidly in this work, using simple lines of a schematic type to locate the principal elements of the composition. In some cases he reinforced the outlines of the figures and the folds of their clothes. The faces have almost caricatural shapes and the artist frequently drew them with just a few dots to indicate the eyes, nose and mouth. Only a very few areas are more fully modelled, such as the angel on the haywain looking up to Heaven, and particularly the Archangel expelling Adam and Eve from Paradise. On the Archangel’s mantel Bosch drew very close parallel lines adapted in length and design to the forms of the folds and similar to those to be seen in other works of this late period, such as the Saint Anthony Triptych in Lisbon. A few other zones have less complete modelling, particularly in the clothing as well as in some body parts, including the faces. Rather than significant changes, in general the underdrawing phase reveals changes of position of lesser degrees of importance and, above all, corrections. There are also differences between the underdrawing and the pictorial layer. Some of the drawn elements were not ultimately painted, such as the cross next to the bridge on the outer wings, as mentioned above.
The existence of various references to different versions of The Haywain, two of them in Spain (the original in the Museo del Prado and the copy in El Escorial) has given rise to a degree of confusion about their origins. There are no documentary references to confirm the provenance or the intended destination of these two works, both signed, but it is known that in 1570 Philip II purchased one of them from the heirs of the collector and courtier Felipe de Guevara (c. 1500-1563) although it is not known where the king had it sent. Given the date when he acquired it, everything would seem to suggest that the one that belonged to the Guevaras was the painting that came to the monastery among the first group of works sent there by the King in 1574 and that it has remained there ever since. Felipe de Guevara, who must have inherited the painting from his father, Diego de Guevara, considered it to be an original by Bosch and it appears as such in the document recording its sale by Guevara’s heirs to Philip II. Furthermore, some scholars believed it to be by Bosch himself until technical analyses made it clear that it was a copy of the original in the Prado. As for the present triptych in the Museo del Prado, its provenance and the moment it entered the Spanish royal collections are not known. However, Bosch could have painted it during the reign of Philip II and the King could in fact have acquired it before Guevara acquired his, if one considers the reference to it in a text by the humanist Ambrosio de Morales. In his study of Morales’s text, Abdón Salazar concluded that the author had included this reference to the triptych belonging to the Spanish monarch when he published his text in 1586, by which date the Guevara version was in El Escorial, and not in or before 1549, when he wrote it. Otherwise, at the present time the only thing that can be stated with certainty regarding the triptych in the Prado is that it is recorded for the first time in the inventory of the Alcázar in Madrid of 1636 (Text drawn from Silva, P.: Bosch. The 5th Centenary Exhibition, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2016, pp. 283-291).