The artist Hieronymus Bosch is a mystery of Art History. His role in the Northern Renaissance has made him a curiosity who has been admired, copied, and perhaps disdained as a madman. His paintings are fantastical always and religious usually, but religious in a unique, sometimes troubling and psychologically dark manner. He left no written documents or letters that might explain his ideas about painting, but he is mentioned in the archives of the Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady, a Netherlandish religious confraternity. His father was an artist, as were three of his brothers. He rarely dated his paintings and there has been endless speculation about his work, his life, and the meanings of his paintings. However, his work is full of intense expressions of the urgency of the human condition, of which Death and the Miser is an exceptional example.
While most of Bosch’s famous works include many figures crowded into strange environments, this scene of the miser’s bedroom is focused on one person, the man who has lived a life of greed. He has come to the last moments of his life; the final battle for his soul is happening. We are given an opportunity to watch his life unfold in a simultaneous narrative.
In the foreground, we see him in the fullness of life depositing money into a lockable chest, the keys for which are hanging from his waist. Also hanging from his waist and passing through his hand is a rosary. This indicates a moral conflict: praying and hoarding wealth do not go hand in hand except in the disordered mind of the miser. The room includes other attributes of worldly prestige and gain such as armor and documents sealed in wax (likely contracts or loan documents). Remember that usury was, and is, the sin of lending money at exorbitant rates of interest, a likely source of income for this miser. In the chest a demon holds open the bag for the coins. Indeed, demons are everywhere in the room, lurking around and poking their heads from behind a curtain, from under the chest and from over the canopy. Above the canopy is a vaulted passageway and the bed seems to be receding into a void of darkness. Death itself, with the face of a skull, enters through the door with an arrow. In the bed the miser, emaciated with a sickly color, is at the end. It is time to for him to decide: repentance or damnation. Salvation hangs in the balance! Which will it be?