The Haywain Triptych (1516) by Hieronymus Bosch
Interpretation of Netherlandish Biblical Painting

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The Haywain Triptych (1516)

The Haywain Triptych (1516) Prado Museum, Madrid . By Hieronymus Bosch.
Considered to be one of the greatest paintings of the Northern Renaissance.


Analysis of the Haywain Triptych
Explanation of Other Northern Renaissance Paintings


Name: The Haywain Triptych (1516)
Artist: Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516)
Medium: Oil panel painting
Genre: Moralistic religious art
Movement: Netherlandish Renaissance Art
Location: Prado Museum, Madrid

For an explanation of other celebrated oils and frescoes,
please see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).


One of the greatest artists of the Northern Renaissance, Hieronymus Bosch took his name from the town of s-Hertogenbosch, the place in which he lived, worked and died. Wealthy enough not to have to sell any of his pictures, he is famous for his religious paintings full of doom nightmarish Biblical art, many of which were acquired by the extremely devout King Philip II of Spain (1527-98). Mostly triptychs and painted on a large scale with vast amounts of meticulous detail, his best-known works include The Ship of Fools (1490-1500, Louvre); The Garden of Earthly Delights (1500-05, Prado); The Temptation of St Anthony (1500; Portuguese Museum of Art, Lisbon); The Last Judgment (1500s, Alte Pinakothek, Munich); and The Haywain. The iconography of his pictures continues to baffle scholars, and has been a significant source of inspiration for Surrealist artists, including Salvador Dali (1904-89). For more background, see: Flemish painting (1400-1800) and later Dutch painting (c.1600-1700).

Analysis of the Haywain Triptych by Hieronymus Bosch

Among the most famous examples of Christian art of the early 16th century, packed with symbolism and allegorical meanings, The Haywain Triptych focuses on the subject of sin and its consequences. The work was one of a series of six paintings bought by Philip II of Spain in 1570. Later it was divided into three paintings: the central panel was sold to Isabella II of Spain (1830-1904) in 1848, and brought to Aranjuez; the right-hand panel was returned to the El Escorial, in the town of San Lorenzo de El Escorial; and the left-hand panel was transferred to the Prado Museum in Madrid. Only in 1914 were all three elements of the triptych finally recollected in the Prado. (There is a copy in the Escorial).

As was normal for the time, the exterior of the Haywain Triptych was also painted, but in full colour rather than the usual grisaille (grey monochrome). Known as The Path of Life panel, it features a version of Bosch's painting The Wayfarer (1500, Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam), Around him is a series of miniature paintings including one of a hanged man as well as the robbery of another pedlar. Scholars interpret the wayfarer as representing a man who follows his road despite a host of different temptations.



When open, The Haywain Triptych presents a similar narrative to Bosch's earlier masterpiece, The Garden of Earthly Delights.

The left-hand panel depicts several scenes from the Old Testament Book of Genesis: such as the casting out of rebel angels from Heaven; how God created Eve from the rib of Adam; the serpent (a creepy-looking snake with a man's head) offering Adam and Eve an apple in the Garden of Paradise; and Gabriel's eviction of Adam and Eve from the Garden.

The centre-panel depicts a large hay wagon (haywain) surrounded by a teeming mass of people trying to grab some hay from it for themselves. Some kings and bishops can also be seen following the hay cart, while other pleasure-seekers are committing a variety of sins (gluttony, folly, lechery, avarice, deceit). At the foot of the scene, a fat monk gets drunk while other nuns and monks are busily filling a sack full of hay for themselves. Unnoticed by the frolicking crowds, Christ looks down on the scene of debauchery from his position high in the sky. The wagon and its accompanying sinners are progressing inexorably into the next panel which shows damnation.

According to a contemporary interpretation of Bosch's painting by Ambrosio de Morales (1513-91), The Haywain Triptych symbolizes the triviality and transience of earthly pleasures and the futile acquisition of worldly goods. (Compare later Dutch vanitas painting.) In effect, Bosch is trying to show how the pursuit of material possessions and physical pleasure (the grabbing of hay) leads ultimately to eternal damnation. (One Flemish proverb states: "the world is like a hay cart and everyone takes what he can".)

The right-hand panel is Bosch's depiction of Hell (or maybe the world on the Day of Judgement), a flaming underworld filled with hideous beasts, torturing and tearing humans apart, eating them alive and hanging them from the rooftops amid the smoke and flames. [Note: See similar creatures in the later painting Mad Meg (Dulle Griet) (1562) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-69).] In this connection, note that Bosch was a witness to the terrible fire of 1463 that destroyed much of the prosperous Dutch town of Brabant, which might account for the images of fire in many of his paintings. Another curious aspect of this panel concerns the strange tower being constructed. What on earth is its purpose? Is it reaching towards Heaven for some reason?

Explanation of Other Northern Renaissance Panel Paintings

For analysis of works by other celebrated Northern Renaissance artists, plese see the following:

Melun Diptych (1450-55) Koninklijk Museum; SMPK, Berlin. By Jean Fouquet.

Last Judgment Triptych (c.1471) Gdansk. By Hans Memling.

Portinari Altarpiece (1476-9) Uffizi Gallery. By Hugo van der Goes.

Donne Triptych (1477-80) National Gallery, London. By Hans Memling.

Isenheim Altarpiece (c.1515) Colmar. By Matthias Grunewald.

Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam (1523) NG, London. By Hans Holbein.

Netherlandish Proverbs (1559) SMPK, Berlin. By Pieter Bruegel the Elder.


• For more outstanding Northern Renaissance oil paintings, see: Homepage.

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