Those who trust in their riches will wither. (Proverbs 11:28 NRSV)
Known as Death and the Miser, this painting by Hieronymus Bosch is both a didactic admonition for those who would lead a wise and good life and a dramatic allegory of the fate of the human soul after death.
A pale, naked old man is on his deathbed. No human companions tend him. Everything around him indicates that he has led a miserly and selfish life, hoarding money, possessions, and the attributes of status. The richly dressed man in the foreground is most likely to be a visual recollection of the miser in recent life. He is busily adding more gold coins to his demonic stash, his prominent rosary betraying his religious hypocrisy.
But now, Death is near, cadaverous in a grave shroud at the door. This is a moment of moral and spiritual urgency. Will Proverbs’ warning that ‘riches do not profit in the day of wrath’ (11:4) be heeded?
There is hope. A white-robed angel has come to the old miser, urging him at last to look upwards, to the light of Christ on the cross at the upper window—the source of salvation.
The worried expression on the angel’s face as he notices a scaly demon atop the bedhead says it all, however. Even with the fate of his soul at stake, the miser is tempted by the bulging bag of money offered by another ugly little demon, and reaches out for it. Death’s arrow is aimed directly at the man’s grasping hand and lower body; the light of his potential salvation, is, by contrast, aimed straight at his heart.
This panel was originally part of a triptych dealing largely with the congenital condition of human folly. Technical examination has revealed its connection to other surviving panels, though there is no firm consensus about what the subject of the triptych’s probably more explicitly religious central panel may have been. Seen in the light of Proverbs 11, Bosch’s miser reminds us that ‘the wicked earn no real gain’ (v.18). His own fate hangs on whether he can yet recognize the empty nature of riches over the everlasting ‘fruit of the righteous’ (v.30).
11A false balance is an abomination to the Lord,
but a just weight is his delight.
2When pride comes, then comes disgrace;
but with the humble is wisdom.
3The integrity of the upright guides them,
but the crookedness of the treacherous destroys them.
4Riches do not profit in the day of wrath,
but righteousness delivers from death.
5The righteousness of the blameless keeps his way straight,
but the wicked falls by his own wickedness.
6The righteousness of the upright delivers them,
but the treacherous are taken captive by their lust.
7When the wicked dies, his hope perishes,
and the expectation of the godless comes to nought.
8The righteous is delivered from trouble,
and the wicked gets into it instead.
9With his mouth the godless man would destroy his neighbor,
but by knowledge the righteous are delivered.
10When it goes well with the righteous, the city rejoices;
and when the wicked perish there are shouts of gladness.
11By the blessing of the upright a city is exalted,
but it is overthrown by the mouth of the wicked.
12He who belittles his neighbor lacks sense,
but a man of understanding remains silent.
13He who goes about as a talebearer reveals secrets,
but he who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing hidden.
14Where there is no guidance, a people falls;
but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.
15He who gives surety for a stranger will smart for it,
but he who hates suretyship is secure.
16A gracious woman gets honor,
and violent men get riches.
17A man who is kind benefits himself,
but a cruel man hurts himself.
18A wicked man earns deceptive wages,
but one who sows righteousness gets a sure reward.
19He who is steadfast in righteousness will live,
but he who pursues evil will die.
20Men of perverse mind are an abomination to the Lord,
but those of blameless ways are his delight.
21Be assured, an evil man will not go unpunished,
but those who are righteous will be delivered.
22Like a gold ring in a swine’s snout
is a beautiful woman without discretion.
23The desire of the righteous ends only in good;
the expectation of the wicked in wrath.
24One man gives freely, yet grows all the richer;
another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want.
25A liberal man will be enriched,
and one who waters will himself be watered.
26The people curse him who holds back grain,
but a blessing is on the head of him who sells it.
27He who diligently seeks good seeks favor,
but evil comes to him who searches for it.
28He who trusts in his riches will wither,
but the righteous will flourish like a green leaf.
29He who troubles his household will inherit wind,
and the fool will be servant to the wise.
30The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life,
but lawlessness takes away lives.
31If the righteous is requited on earth,
how much more the wicked and the sinner!