Hell in a handcart: The secrets behind Hieronymous Bosch’s The Haywain

After a recent trip to Lille, where I saw some of the creepiest and strangely wonderful art I’ve ever seen, I was stuck on the Eurostar for an hour and a half with no book to read. What I did have was an enormous 3210 x 2065 scan of the masterpiece painting by Hieronymous Bosch, The Haywain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Jheronimus (Hieronymous) Bosch
Jheronimus (Hieronymous) Bosch (c. 1450 – 9 August 1516)

I thought I could kill ten minutes or so looking over this wonderfully rich piece of medieval symbolic painting – but an hour and a half later, I pulled into London King’s Cross, and I was still looking at Bosch’s painting.

This artwork is so complex it has the richness of text. It brought me right back to poring over the Where’s Wally series as a kid: spotting concealed storylines, visual gags, hidden connections between elements.

It’d be hard to list all of what there is to see in The Haywain – and I’m sure I’ve only spotted and understood a fraction of it anyway – but I’ve gathered some of the key elements here, as well as some secrets you might have missed.

Little is known of Hieronymous Bosch’s biography, his life or his training. All we have left are his vivid, lucid – at times lurid set pieces, The Garden of Earthly Delights and The Haywain.

Both depict the three stages of mankind’s progression: innocence, sinfulness and damnation.

We begin The Haywain triptych in the top left-hand corner, with an austere-looking Abrahamic God casting the rebel angels out of heaven, and turning them into insects as they break through the clouds.

The Haywain by Hieronymous BoschThen we get the story we all know: Adam and Eve, the temptation with the fruit, the casting out of Eden. The garden of Eden is wonderfully rich and peaceful. Ripened fruit are everywhere, and only the chaos of the angels behind the scene hints at the madness to come. A wonderfully creepy serpent with a man’s head winds around the tree, tempting the gullible couple. 

Bosch's The Haywain - Eden

This first panel is the most conventional, and ends with the disobedient humans trying to cover their naked bodies as Gabriel wields his flaming sword and sends them on their way.

Hieronymous Bosch - The Haywain

Fast-forward to the main panel, and the year AD 1516. Or thereabouts, anyway. Here we see the fruits of mankind’s deceit. We’re no longer naked and frightened – we’re clothed in finery, brawling and bickering, following kings and priests and scientists.

The crowd of people seems to flow directly out of the vegetation of Eden. They are following an enormous cart piled impossibly high with golden hay, on top of which a family sit and play the lute with a devilish-looking imp. Beside them, on top of the hay, an angel sits and prays. Down below, the whole teeming mass of humanity scraps with each other and claws at the haybale, trying to get a piece of their own.

One enterprising man has even taken a large bill hook and is using it to scrape away some hay for himself, and a holy man is vainly using a ladder to try to climb the still-moving object. Some are even crushed beneath the wheels of the cart.

Hieronymous Bosch - The Haywain

Kings and bishops are all following the hay, too. The king seems to be taking the council of one holy man with a golden crown. It’s worthwhile noting that the King is wearing exactly the same crown as God in the first panel. The bishop is wearing the same-coloured robe too. Both of them have garbed themselves in the dress of earthly gods, Bosch seems to be saying, but neither of them have quite got it right.

Hieronymous Bosch - The Haywain

Hieronymous Bosch - The Haywain

The hay from the cart is in high demand. In the bottom right of this panel, a fat, corpulent friar gets drunk while his subordinate monks and nuns stuff a sack full of the holy hay, hoarding it for themselves. Beside them, one nun is trying to pay a musician with a handful, which is particularly redolent due to the connection Bosch seems to draw between the enjoyment of pleasures such as music and a life of sin..

To their left, a man of science is in the middle of checking up on a patient’s teeth.

A diagram beside his table shows worms and even a rat invading a human heart – and sure enough, in his pouch there is also a bundle of hay. beside him, women and ladies in waiting share gossip, and care for children while roasting a pig’s head spiced with herbs.

The details here are wonderful, and paint such a clear vision of everyday life in the Medieval Netherlands. The clothes, the food, the burning moral quandaries – all of it a perfect snapshot of how people lived, and what they feared.

Hieronymous Bosch - The HaywainSo what does the hay represent?

To me, Bosch’s hay is the appearance of holiness. It is the ceremony, the ostentation of organised religion, and the codification of goodness. It is the doctrine pedalled by priests and kings that justifies their sins in the name of God. It is a false, hypocritical relationship to God, mediated through the institutions of church and state, and it’s not going to get you anywhere good.

All these sinners are following the holy bale of hay, trying to scrape away a little for themselves, and all the while murdering each other, amassing personal wealth and lusting after the opposite sex. Hay, after all, is also what you might use to kindle a fire.

The haywain might seem holy, Bosch is saying, but look who’s dragging it. And where it’s going.

Hieronymous Bosch - The Haywain

The poet William Blake once wrote of Paradise Lost that “the reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”

I think the same might be said of Bosch – though I’m sure he’d hate to hear it. Bosch clearly relishes his own depictions of hell, and the torments awaiting unrepentant sinners. His haywain is being dragged by a cavalcade of hideous half-human demons, contorted, hellish creatures with the bodies of fish, or the legs of frogs, or a rat’s head.

Hieronymous Bosch, the Haywain - Jesus ChristAbove the whole messy, chaotic scene, Christ looks down from heaven, his hands raised as mankind literally goes to hell in a handcart.

Is Christ showing his wounds to humanity? Is he imploring them to stop, or just throwing his hands up in despair? It’s hard to tell, and it doesn’t matter – of all the characters below, only the angel on top of the haywain seems to know that he’s there.

Once again, the movement of the second panel flows directly into the next one – straight to hell, that is.

I love the weirdness of Bosch’s hell. It’s hard to tell whether this is actually the underworld, or simply earth on the Day of Judgement – but it’s teeming once again with hideous creatures, and livid with flames.

Hieronymous Bosch’s biography in his artwork

As with most artists, the keys to much of Hieronymous Bosch’s work lies in his biography.

It would be fair to say that Bosch was obsessed with fire, and for good reason. He grew up and spent much of his life in the thriving Dutch city of Brabant, where, in 1463, 4,000 houses in the town were destroyed by a catastrophic fire. The approximately 13-year-old Bosch presumably witnessed this terrifying event, and the particularly horrific and realistic depiction of hell here seems to spring right from those memories: the sky choked with smoke, lit from beneath by the flames.

Hieronymous Bosch - The Haywain

I think the strangest thing is that the beasts and demons aren’t just tearing humans apart, flaying them, devouring them alive and hanging them from the rooftops – they’re also building some kind of tower. One demon is chopping some wood into a beam, while another is climbing a ladder with a hod full of mortar, and a monster with a frog’s body puts a brick meticulously into place.

What is the demonic tower for? Why are they building it? These uncertainties are somehow more horrible than the usual scenes of hell and torture we see from the Middle Ages.

I love The Haywain. It’s not as obviously surreal as Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, but it’s more complex, more interwoven with symbolism and allegory. I recommend you make yourself a cup of tea and sit down to look at this, because you might be there a while.

Did you spot any hidden signs or secret connections in Hieronymous Bosch’s artwork The Haywain? Tell me about it in the comments section below, or come talk to me on Twitter.

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7 thoughts on “Hell in a handcart: The secrets behind Hieronymous Bosch’s The Haywain”

  1. Hi Paul, I am Danyealah and I am a young writer, blogger and poet. I am also a college student studying art and architecture – Bosch’s paintings are all too familiar to me. The first painting I ever studied of his was, The Garden of Earthly Delights. Like you, I was instantly captivated. I remember staring at the painting in my textbook for almost 30 minutes, trying to pick up every horrific detail I could. I love the way you’ve written about Bosch and really enjoyed reading this piece. 🙂

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  2. I loved your comments regarding this Bosch paining. So surreal imaginative and hellish. I did not know much about this painting. I would love to see they exhibit. Thank you for sharing the blog

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  3. hi paul. i love the look and the detail in your blog. i feel like i can learn a lot from you and enjoy myself along the way. what more could a person ask for? thanks for reading and following my words and i look forward to doing the same. best, beth

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