“Class, Gender, and the Influence of penitential Literature in Bosch’s Depictions of Sin” (Laura D. Gelfand) 2010
[in: Eric De Bruyn and Jos Koldeweij (eds.), Jheronimus Bosch. His Sources. 2nd International Jheronimus Bosch Conference, May 22-25, 2007, Jheronimus Bosch Art Center, ’s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands. Jheronimus Bosch Art Center, ’s-Hertogenbosch, 2010, pp. 159-173]
Bosch’s The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things (Prado) provided for its commissioner, and perhaps for a larger group of viewers, a visual stimulus to contemplate one’s sins and their punishments. Such contemplation was prescribed by pastoral literature, such as confessor’s manuals, and was an essential part of confession. The iconography of the work is derived in part from lay spiritual movements whose ideas were circulating in and around the Netherlands at the end of the fifteenth century. In this contribution Gelfand examines the representation of social status in the scenes illustrating the sins. People from all classes, ages and both genders are engaged in committing one or more of the sins.
The representation of members of specific social classes within the narrative scenes illustrates contemporary conceptions of the relationship between an individual’s position in society and associations with specific sins. The sins of Luxuria and Superbia are committed by the aristocracy. Members of the merchant class commit the sins of Invidia, Avaritia and Accidia. The poor are shown in the scenes of Ira and Gula. The Memoriale presbiterorum, a fourteenth-century English confessor’s manual, like many other such texts, divides potential penitents by social status and instructs confessors on the specific questions each of these groups should be asked. Such manuals indicate the particular sins that were associated with various social or gender groups. Bosch’s depiction of Invidia includes the most specific connection between a particular sin and members of a social class: the poor man and his wife who are envious of the fashionably-dressed man with the falcon represent the sinful behaviour associated with the desire to to rise from the social class into which one is born.
In terms of gender we find that men are far more likely to be shown engaged in sinful activities than women. Details included in the scenes point out the destruction caused to society by each of the sins: for instance the woman looking in the mirror in Superbia is setting a bad example for the servants and poor parenting is evident in the Gula scene. There is also an indication that committing one of the sins may lead to committing others: the sins depicted are not confined to their own parts of the central circle and each of the scenes includes an element that alludes to another sin. The money bags for example, which are most commonly associated with Avaritia, are found in every scene but Ira. The sin of avarice must have been of particular importance to the commissioner of the work.
The ways in which the sinners are characterized in terms of their social status reflects contemporary ideas of social classes and the sins associated with them, as evidenced in confessor’s manuals. Such a system of moral sociography is also displayed in Bosch’s painting and it is important to notice that ecclesiastics, who are the subject of extensive discussion in the confessor’s manuals, are not found in Bosch’s painting at all. This may provide some evidence for the identity of the original owner.
[explicit 27 April 2012]