Tribulations of human life

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Tribulations of human life
This theme is also known as “The Haywain”, and is depicted in the central panel of the triptychs with the same name that are kept in the Museo Nacional del Prado and in the Monastery of El Escorial itself (in the Lower Priory Cell), both part of Philip II’s (1527-1598) collection. As was normal in works of this type, the side panels show Paradise and the consequence of sin, Hell (as we see also in The Garden of Earthly Delights). The closed triptychs, painted in grisaille, showed the pilgrim on a the difficult journey of life.

A sphere amid a rough sea

A globe crowned with a cross, leaning towards the right, contains the main theme. The transparent sphere floats on a boat in a rough sea full of savage fish. A group of characters, including a friar, attempt to bring a man into the boat using a ladder; on the opposite side, three angels gaze upon a Latin cross whose arms culminate in circles. In the upper left-hand corner, a sea monster spurts fire out of its mouth, fire which is then transformed into a flock of birds.

The haywain

Inside the sphere we see the principal scene, which is based on the main panel of the triptych dating from around 1513, known as “The Haywain”. Copies of this triptych are kept in the Museo del Prado and the Royal Monastery of El Escorial. This moralizing painting is inspired by Psalm 14 of the prophet Isaiah, which highlights the ephimeral nature of earthly things: “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades away.” Bosch also used this painting to depict humanity taken by sin, following the Flemish proverb “The world is like a haystack, and each person plucks from it what he can.”

Worldly pleasures

Above the carriage we see monstrous allegorical images of worldly pleasures, which in the original triptych were couples listening to relaxing profane music together with a demon. Various features have been taken from the triptych, including lions, dogs, wolves and fish with human bodies, who symbolise mortal sins winning over humanity. Popes, kings, ecclesiastics and men of humble rank attempt to mount the carriage or obtain a wisp of the cherished hay.

Series Four tapestries after Hieronymus Bosch

Third tapestry in the series

Model Inspired by the work of Hieronymus Bosch

Manufacture Unknown workshop, Brussels, before 1560

Fabric Gold, silver, silk and wool

Size 298 x 368 cm

Location Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial

Origin Collection of Caridinal Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle

On display Halls of Honour

National Heritage Inv. n. 10004012


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