There is a well-known Dutch saying: “This world is like a haystack, and people try to grab from it as much as possible.” That proverb has become a theme in music and painting, especially in the case of a haunting story associated with one of the most famous works of Hieronymus Bosch known as ‘The Haywain Triptych.’
‘The Haywain Triptych’ is a panel painting consisting of three interconnected pieces: the main panel in the middle carries the central message and the shutters at the two sides are complementary; they can be closed like doors. Triptych are often worship paintings in churches and cathedrals in Europe, whose content tells a story.
‘The Haywain Triptych’ features an intricate allegory with a clear message.
In the left panel, we see the Garden of Eden. The creation of Adam and Eve by God is shown along with the original sin and expulsion from the Garden.
Moving to the central panel, we see the everyday world. In the center stands a wagon laden with hay, with people eagerly trying to get on top of it.
In the right panel is hell. The devil pulls the carriage to hell, leading humanity along with him.
Connecting the three panels would unfold the whole story, from the beginning of humanity, through every step of the fall until the final judgment. It is also a journey of descent, starting in Paradise and ending in Hell.
The first panel : The Garden of Eden
The painting begins with a familiar scene, the Garden of Eden. The story is told in three scenes: God creates Eve from Adam’s rib, followed by the scene where Eve is tempted by the serpent to eat the forbidden fruit, and finally both Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden.
The image at the top signifies rebellious angels cast down from Heaven like insects while God sits enthroned. This image comes from the end of the Heavenly War between the Archangel Michael and the Red Dragon as told in the Bible, in the book of Revelation. “Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.” (Revelation 12: 7-9)
Here we see the fallen angels who followed the Devil cast down to the world due to their rebellious act. The book of Revelation states that the Red Dragon along with its demonic army will flood the earth and cause chaos. They tempt people and lead them to the point of self-destruction. It suggests that demonic influence plays a role in the human corruption.
The second panel: The everyday world
The central image is a cart, or “wain,” loaded with hay, surrounded by people greedily gasping for every bit that they can get their hands on.
The central panel: Man’s greed as God looks down.
The haystack is a metaphor for worldly fame and desires that are fleeting, decaying, and ultimately meaningless. The crowd surrounds the haywain, with everyone searching for their own gain without realizing that the devil is pulling the wain toward hell.
The chaotic crowd represents all social strata: aristocrats, merchants, monks, civilians, the elderly and the young, mothers busy taking care of their children, and the charlatan examining patients with pockets full of hay. They are vying with each other, fighting with each other, conspiring together, cheating on each other, bending down just to get some hay for themselves.
The strong one tries to climb up the moving wagon, the shrewd man uses the hook to get some hay, the wise one stores it in his pocket, the rough one does not hesitate to fight for a handful of hay and the hopeless one crawls under the wain waiting for his chance to come.
The Emperor and the Pope.
The Emperor and the Pope are implicitly at the summit of society, but they still follow the haywain. And the nuns and clergymen who should set an example are sadly full of greed and desire. Some fill the sack with hay, and some stuff all the hay next to their bellies. A nun even exchanges her hay for the sausage of the musician playing the bagpipe.
The phallic connotations of sausages and bagpipes represent carnal desire, suggesting that the ‘nun’ still cannot let go of worldly pleasures
The temptation of desire.
In the world depicted by Bosch, who can resist the attraction of hay? The group of musicians and lovers sitting on the wagon look seemingly indifferent to all earthly temptations.
But a closer look reveals that behind the couple there is someone lurking with a vase with a stick in his hand, symbolizing the phallic; and besides the musician group, a demon is playing the trumpet.
Bosch seems to be telling us that all human desires, even love or music, are manipulated by demons.
The owl: witness to mankind’s fall.
There is a very small but very subtle detail often missed in the central panel. In the tree above the couple, there is an owl sitting on a branch.
The owl often appears in Bosch’s paintings, exemplifying a pair of eyes watching human behavior. Here, the owl silently stands high above and looks down at the chaotic crowd.
What people consider so valuable, and the reasons for which they are fighting each other (money, fame, power, and pleasure), are, in fact, just “hay.” Hay serves as effective bait that the devil uses to cause people to drown in sin and selfishness.
The demons leading the wagon onward.
Up above, Jesus is looking down at his people hopelessly. The wound is still bleeding in his hands and left ribcage. Jesus was said to be crucified to atone for humanity, to save mankind. And those he sacrificed himself for? They are too busy with their own pursuits to notice him.
Jesus looking down; humanity is too busy to notice.
On the haystack, an angel is praying on a bent knee beside the group of musicians playing their instruments. The angel looks up to heaven as if to ask God to awaken humanity. He is the only one facing towards the Lord.
The third panel: Hell
Following the footsteps of the demons we will enter the third panel: hell.
The painting depicts the terrifying fate of condemned humanity. One man has his stomach cut open, another is eaten alive voraciously, one is pierced by a spear through the back, another is hanging, consumed by flames.
Regardless of their rank in the material world, these men are fragile and powerless. Their hay can do them no good now. The sufferings and pains that they are subject to equals the bad deeds that they have committed.
The message is clear: the bigger the greed, the deeper they drown in sin, the further from God they are dragged, and the closer to destruction.
Last but not least, the fourth painting, revealed by folding the triptych up, unfolds Bosch’s final message.
The fourth painting: The wayfarer
‘The wayfarer’ depicts a man with luggage on his back walking his path.
The wayfarer sees the world around him.
Behind him sits a chaotic world. On the left, a band of robbers ties a man to a trunk to take his money and property, symbolizing crime and suffering on the path of life.
On the right, two people dance and a musician plays the bagpipe, often signifying pleasure and self-indulgence. Next to the wayfarer, a snarling dog seemingly threatens to bite, symbolizing the constant presence of evil. The skeleton symbolizes the lurking presence of death in the world.