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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

Georg Scholz

Industrialised Peasants (Industriebauern), 1920, Painting and collage on plywood, 98 x 70 cm, Von der Heydt Museum, Wuppertal, Photo: akg-images / Erich Lessing

Richard Long

A Line Made by Walking, 1967, Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper and graphite on board, 375 x 324 mm, Tate; Purchased 1976, P07149, © 2019 Richard Long. All Rights Reserved, DACS, London / ARS, NY; Photo: © Tate, London / Art Resource, NY

Misers and Measures

Comparative Commentary by

Proverbs 11 is part of the oldest collection of proverbs in the book (10:1–22:16). It opens with a statement about the righteousness of true and accurate measures: YHWH abhors a ‘false balance’ and delights in ‘an accurate weight’ (11:1). Balance, uprightness, constancy, steadfastness, and diligence are characteristic of the ordered worldview of the proverbs. When their equilibrium is upset—by wickedness, crookedness, cruelty, avarice, folly, and violence—the ensuing consequences are both just and inevitable.

As much as anything else, wisdom consists here in practical understanding about how to live a good life.

Many of the didactic contrasts between the ‘righteous’ and the ‘wicked’ in Proverbs 11 (as elsewhere in the book) address the themes of wealth and poverty that confronted viewers of Hieronymus Bosch’s panel, Death and the Miser. The painting emphasizes Christ as the way to salvation. In Proverbs, it is a judicious, and ‘blameless’ life wisely led that leads to flourishing, and that is YHWH's ‘delight’ (11:20). In both visions, justice and accountability prevail. The miser on his deathbed will—so it is implied—‘wither’, having ‘trusted in his riches’ (11:28). He risks an afterlife, not of flourishing, but of depletion, material and spiritual.

Closer to our own time, but with distinctly Boschian echoes, Georg Scholz also takes us into the intimate sphere of domesticity to expose, ruthlessly, the inhabitants’ moral lives. The aftermath of Germany’s defeat in the war of 1914–18, the collapse of the German empire, and the precarious beginnings of a new Republic were marked by poverty, severe shortages, conflict, and deep resentments. Scholz’s Dadaist work, Industrialised Peasants, indicts those profiteering German farmers who ‘held back grain’ (11:26), causing inflated prices and devastating hunger to their fellow people. In the phrasing of Proverbs 11:26, the artist ‘curses’ them and their hoarding miserliness, represented by the cossetted piglet, the sack of grain in the corner of the room, and the expensive new farm machinery outside. He presents them as a family of sadistic and grotesque hypocrites, even their snot-nosed offspring ‘looking like a monster displaced from a painting by Hieronymus Bosch’ (Doherty 2006: 92). Their piety—with the prominent hymnbook and Christian newspaper functioning like the miser’s rosary in Bosch’s work—is revealed as a meaningless veneer for merciless avarice.

Verses 11:24–26 of Proverbs all deal with meanness and generosity, critical contrasts between two kinds of people and between two ways of living. Those who give freely are blessed, metaphorically ‘watered’, and they ‘grow richer’. Their gain is an abundance of blessing on their lives and bodies. On the other hand, those who ‘withhold what is due’ (11:24) will suffer. Their spiritual deprivation echoes the material deprivation they inflict on others. The culmination of this group of proverbs is verse 26, which presents the tangible example of miserliness: holding back grain.

So, what wisdom does Proverbs 11 offer for a good life, pleasing to God? Richard Long’s early work, A Line Made by Walking is most commonly read as a challenge to conventional understandings of sculpture or as a subtly provocative intervention in the British landscape tradition in art. Seen in juxtaposition with some of the words of guidance and admonition in Proverbs 11, Long’s work takes on new connotations. It suggests straight paths that are habitual, walked consistently, and an upright gait (11:3, 6, 11). Without reading the parallel too literally, Long’s modest and benign intervention in the landscape, his own way of moving and being within it, might sharpen our attention to how the didactic language of Proverbs consistently conjoins bodily and moral rectitude.

Living well means developing the wisdom that is ‘with the humble’ (11:2). It means steadfast ‘upright’ habits that become so ingrained as to be innate and natural. Together, these three works of art, from periods of both promise and strife in the history of Europe, open up some vivid dimensions of this universal guidance for the human paths to wisdom and righteousness.

 

References

Doherty, Brigid. 2006. ‘Berlin’, in Dada, ed. by Leah Dickerman (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art), pp. 87–153

 

Next exhibition: Proverbs 31