Commentary by Hovak Najarian
Pride (Detail from: “The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things”), oil on wood, c. 1500, Hieronymus Bosch, 1450-1516
The list of “Seven Deadly Sins” (pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust) is not biblical in source but instead was written by Evagrius Ponticus at a fourth century Egyptian monastery. It contained eight “sins” originally. “Vainglory” was one of the eight but its meaning overlapped with pride and it was dropped. Also, at one time, the list included “acedia.” meaning listlessness or torpor (a state of being found sometimes in people such as monks who lived a solitary life); it was changed to sloth. Although the term “deadly” seems grim and fatal, St. Gregory the Great noted the items on the list did not in themselves constitute sins. These were, however, behavioral characteristics or vices that could lead to sin. The “Seven Deadly Sins” also are called, “Capital Vices” and “Cardinal Sins.”
While the Renaissance was taking place in Italy, there were still Gothic elements remaining in Northern Europe. Classicism along with its gods and goddesses re-entered the art of Italy but painters in the North tended to be slower to leave themes that focused on morality. Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings included everyday people and often they were satirical and pessimistic; sin and punishment seemed to be his preoccupations. It has been speculated, “The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things,” could have been painted by one of Bosch’s pupils but scholars continue to support the belief that it is from the hand of the master.
The full painting of the “Deadly Sins” is rectangular in shape with a large circle dominating the center. The circle has been divided into seven sections (in the manner of a Lazy Susan) and a “sin” is depicted in each of the sections. The very center of the large circle is believed to represent the eye of God. Within its “pupil,” Christ is emerging from his tomb. Below it (in Latin) is written “Beware, Beware, God Sees” In the four corners are smaller circles where the “Four Last Things” are depicted; “Death of the Sinner,” “Judgment,” “Hell,” and “Glory.”
The scene, “Pride” (Latin: Suberbia), depicts a woman dressed in the typical Dutch fashion of her time. Just after entering a room she is shocked and immobilized when a mirror is thrust before her by a fierce looking demon that emerged abruptly from the shadow of the heavy wooden cupboard. The shock has forced her to look at her life and to become aware of pride.
Although to us it may seem like the woman in the painting is wearing a lampshade on her head, it is in fact a standard gauze headdress in the style of her day. Its back side is flat and does not reveal the interesting and often creative manner in which women’s headdresses were folded and pinned in front.
Hovak Najarian © 2013