Death and the Miser by Hieronymus Bosch

Hieronymus Bosch

Death and the Miser, c.1494, Oil on panel, 93 x 31 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.5.33, Photo: Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

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Filthy Lucre

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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).

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