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Bosch, the Last Judgment

Hieronymus Bosch, Last Judgment Triptych, 1504-08, Akademie für bildenden Künste, Vienna, overall dimensions 163 x 250 cm, central panel 163 x 128 cm, wings 163 x 60 cm. Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

STEVEN ZUCKER: As with many triptychs, viewers could see the exterior of the closed triptych during the weekdays. And on feast days or on the weekends, the painting would be opened up. You would move from the rather prosaic expressions of our world to a brilliantly colored scene of the horrors of limbo and the horrors of hell. BETH HARRIS: We see a saint on each wing. And these are painted in grisaille, in tones of gray. So it really would have been amazing when it opened to this colorful vision. STEVEN ZUCKER: The idea of painting the exterior in grisaille was meant to mimic the exterior, that is, the stone, of the church. But here the artist has moved far beyond that earlier tradition. And he's actually not painting niches and sculptures, but actual people, a city and the landscape. BETH HARRIS: So here in grisaille one side, we see St. Bavo, who was associated with the northern city of Ghent. He's shown distributing alms to the sick and the poor through a doorway, a view of a Flemish city. STEVEN ZUCKER: Showing the wonderful detail of that cityscape. Let's walk around to the other side and take a look at St. James. You can see he's traveled past all kinds of expressions of wickedness. His faith, however, has kept him safe. And he's very much associated with pilgrimage. It is his pilgrimage that so many medieval faithful would follow. BETH HARRIS: These wings could have given us clues to the patron of this very large triptych, but unfortunately, the coat of arms is blank. STEVEN ZUCKER: We don't know why, but some art historians have suggested that perhaps the donor may have died before the work was finished. Let's look inside. The image, in a sense, unfolds as a kind of story, beginning in the left wing. We see God in heaven. He is in majesty, in a kind of brilliant mandorla surrounded by clouds. But when you look more closely, you see that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of angels that seem to be battling each other. This is the fall of the rebel angels. BETH HARRIS: This is a rebellion of angels led by Lucifer, the devil. STEVEN ZUCKER: And they will be expelled from heaven and, of course, will go to reside in hell. And down at the very foot of the panel, we can see God extracting Eve from Adam's side. That is the last part of the creation of Adam and Eve. Just above that, we have the Temptation. There is a sense of peace in the foreground. But this act of defiance against God's law is this important breaking point because you can see that beyond that original sin, you have one animal eating another instead of living in harmony. And then you have an avenging angel who is expelling Adam and Eve from Paradise and leading them into to the world that we know. BETH HARRIS: We have an unfolding of events at the top, beginning with God and the fall of the rebel angels, the event that happens first. Then we jump down to the bottom and the creation of Eve, then just above that the Temptation, and above that the expulsion of Adam and Even from the Garden of Eden. And of course, this is the origin of original sin. And after the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, mankind knows sin and temptation and death. STEVEN ZUCKER: These stories echo each other. You have Lucifer disobeying God. You have Adam and Eve disobeying God. You have Lucifer being expelled from heaven. And you have man being expelled from the garden. So there is this parallel of the heavenly and the earthly. BETH HARRIS: And what Bosch is really concerned with are the wages of sin. This is what Bosch was famous, for even in his time. STEVEN ZUCKER: This deeply pessimistic philosophy, this questioning, is there any possibility of redemption given the sins of the world? BETH HARRIS: It certainly doesn't seem that way. STEVEN ZUCKER: Well, let's take a look at the evidence that he offers. OK, so we're moving to the central panel. At the top, we see Christ, functioning as judge. We see angels with long golden trumpets who are announcing the end of time. BETH HARRIS: And below it, taking up most of the central panel, is limbo, or the edges of hell. And this is a scene that Bosch has combined with images of the seven deadly sins, the sins that cause mankind to spend eternity in hell. STEVEN ZUCKER: This is a painting whose bottom 2/3 is filled with torture and the terrible crimes that people inflict upon each other, but here enacted by devils and composite creatures that are incredibly fantastic. BETH HARRIS: The punishments that we see here are punishments for specific crimes. And the punishments are related to the crimes. STEVEN ZUCKER: Let's take a look at a few specifics. BETH HARRIS: On the left side, we see something that resembles an inn. On the roof, a figure who seems remarkably oblivious to everything that's going on. She walks as though she's on a fashion runway. But surrounding her and biting her is a hideous insect. And she's led by a hideous dragon. STEVEN ZUCKER: Led to a kind of hellish brothel. BETH HARRIS: And all accompanied by a lute, played by another demon. STEVEN ZUCKER: As well as a horn played by a demon in the back, where the horn actually looks as if it's an extension of this nose. Bosch uses music as one vehicle for sinfulness. BETH HARRIS: A kind of sign of indulgence in pleasure. STEVEN ZUCKER: Below the representation of pride or vanity, you have the sins of gluttony. You see a rather overweight man who's having liquid forcibly poured in to him as he's restrained by devils. BETH HARRIS: And it's not a very nice liquid. STEVEN ZUCKER: No. If you look a little bit above that barrel, you can see that there's a siphon that's receiving the excrement of a devil whose backside just be seen through the gated window. Below that, you see one large demonic fish devouring another, which seems to be a reference to a northern proverb, the big fish eats the little. BETH HARRIS: That we take advantage of those who are smaller and weaker and less powerful than we are. STEVEN ZUCKER: To the right of that, we can see just inside the inn a series of hanging figures, and below that, a large cauldron with a series of figures that seem to be boiling. And we know that they're boiling in molten metal, the metal that had been melted from their money. BETH HARRIS: So this is the sin of avarice or greed. STEVEN ZUCKER: There are endless representations of pain and suffering. You see men being roasted or fried by demonic frogs. You see, in one case, a frying pan with pieces of a body. This frog-like figure seems ready to take her two eggs that sit beside her and crack those into the pan as well. BETH HARRIS: And make a yummy omelet. STEVEN ZUCKER: Yeah. BETH HARRIS: I think that what's so disturbing here is the everydayness of the devilish figures who torture the human beings. They're just going about their roasting and cooking and frying and torturing as thought it were a normal, everyday activity. And it reminds us that hell is eternity. STEVEN ZUCKER: In the middle of the large panel, you can see the sin of anger. And it's represented by three knights who are particularly awful. There's one knight in the middle who has upon his helmet a severed, blinded head. Below that, you see images of corruption. And scattered throughout the foreground, you see images of bodies that have been mutilated, that have been shot with arrows. Bodies have been cut and wounded and devoured in various ways. And all of this, of course, is a lead-in to the right panel, to hell itself. BETH HARRIS: When we think about the triptych as a whole, we have God in the upper left and Satan diagonally across on the lower right. STEVEN ZUCKER: Lucifer here sits in a kind of mock judgement of the souls that have been found to have been sinful. And here he is meting out the terrible punishments according to their crimes in life. BETH HARRIS: And you can see in the doorway behind him images of toads, which often torture figures in images of the last judgment, and then above, on the roof, all of the damned in hell who've recognized where they're spending eternity, who are wailing and crying and flailing their arms. STEVEN ZUCKER: And will populate the city of hell, which we see rising above this image. It is a place of fire and brimstone. It is a place of ruined cities, of absolute neglect. It is an apocalyptic scene most horrible. BETH HARRIS: And if this didn't make you want to live a virtuous life, I don't know what would. [MUSIC PLAYING]