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Will Bosch’s Miser Achieve Salvation?

Death and the Miser, c. 1485/1490

Hieronymus Bosch, Death and the Miser, c. 1485/1490
oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection

Infrared reflectography (IRR) is one of the most important investigative techniques used to examine paintings, particularly those of the northern Renaissance, as it is capable of penetrating through the first paint layers to detect carbon-containing underdrawing materials and other important invisible features. Infrared examination of Hieronymus Bosch’s Death and the Miser discloses extensive underdrawing and significant differences between the underdrawn composition and the final painted image.

Acquiring the Infrared Image

The infrared reflectogram image of Death and the Miser is a mosaic of 210 detail images acquired with a custom near-infrared camera optimized for this application. The camera consists of an interference filter that passes light from 1100 to 1400 nm, a macro near-infrared lens, and a cryo-cooled indium antimonide (InSb) detector array (640 by 512 pixels). The resulting images were mosaicked and registered to the color image using in-house software developed with George Washington University.[1] The spatial sampling of the painting is 260 pixels per inch.

Upper Portion of the Painting

In the image below, the underdrawing shows the miser grabbing the sack held by the demon, probably containing money, while holding with his other hand an ornate metal vessel. Neither of these actions appears in the final painting, and their discovery has important consequences for the interpretation of the subject. By eliminating the miser’s acceptance of the bag of money and the goblet, Bosch has increased the level of ambiguity and anticipation. Will the miser achieve salvation, represented by the crucifix in the window at the upper left, or will he be damned for his sin of avarice? The underdrawing also shows the miser’s mouth open, as if he were speaking, and Death’s arrow is closer to him.

To view IR image details, click on the thumbnail image below the large image.

Lower Portion of the Painting

On top of the low wall in the foreground, the underdrawing shows at the right a rosary, three metal cups, and a flask or ornamental vessel. These items are not present in the paint layer, but the same three cups can be seen in the chest at the foot of the bed. Also note that the purse of the man in green is larger in the underdrawing, and he wears what seems to be a scabbard, perhaps for the knife that holds open the lid of the chest.

The primary direction of the underdrawing, parallel strokes that descend from upper left to lower right, has been taken as an indication that the artist was left-handed. Based on the evidence of his drawings, it is often asserted that Bosch was right-handed, although agreement on this is far from universal. The apparent left-handedness of this underdrawing may indicate that it was made by a member of Bosch’s workshop and that Bosch himself “corrected” the composition in the paint stage.

Evidenced by its shape, Death and the Miser was originally one wing of an altarpiece. It has been definitively associated with two other paintings from the same altarpiece: The Ship of Fools (Musée du Louvre) and An Allegory of Intemperance (Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven). Another possible member of the same altarpiece is The Peddler (Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam). All of these are painted on oak panels from the same tree and all share the distinctive left-handed underdrawing. The center panel of the altarpiece, however, is missing, and debate continues regarding a reconstruction of the surviving components.

[1] Damon M. Conover, John K. Delaney, and Murray H. Loew, “Automatic Registration and Mosaicking of Technical Images of Old Master Paintings,” Applied Physics A 119, no. 4 (2015): 1567–1575.