When Temptation Is Really Something Worse

Reaching Within: What traditional art offers the heart
April 5, 2020 Updated: April 5, 2020

The pandemic of COVID-19 is causing havoc in more ways than we might imagine, such as for those who are battling addictions. 

For some time, the United States has struggled with an opioid epidemic. Now, because of social distancing, many who are combating an addiction are no longer able to attend group meetings or go to gyms to help them cope. 

While some might find solace in meditation practices, others might look closely at art to find inspiration. Hieronymus Bosch’s painting “Death and the Miser” may give us insight and encouragement in resisting all types of addiction.

Bosch and the Brotherhood of Our Lady

Though the life of Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516) is shrouded in mystery, it is known that he was a religious man. He was a member of a religious confraternity, the Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Lady, for which he created works of art.

Founded in 1318, the Brotherhood of Our Lady, which celebrated its 700th anniversary in 2018, is a type of Judeo-Christian “secret” society with a mission that claims “to care for its age-old material and immaterial cultural heritage, the promotion of Christian solidarity and brotherly ties while taking into account modern-day developments and problems.”

As a member of the Brotherhood of Our Lady, Bosch created moralist paintings that warned viewers about the consequences of their actions. These paintings were informed, at least in part, by two medieval texts titled “Ars Moriendi” or “The Art of Dying,” which were written and printed in 1415 and 1450, the first about 60 years after the initial appearance of the Black Death. 

The short version of “Ars Moriendi” provided a series of 10 images divided into pairs. In each pair, one image shows the devil using one of five temptations to win the soul of a dying person. These five temptations include infidelity, despair, impatience, spiritual pride, and avarice. The accompanying image in each pair shows the appropriate response to the temptation. 

In other words, the images in “Ars Moriendi” are to help a dying person navigate the battle between good and evil that occurs within that person’s soul.

A detail from “Death and the Miser” circa 1485–1490 by Hieronymus Bosch. Oil on panel, 36 5/8 by 12 3/16 inches. National Gallery of Art, Washington. (Public Domain)

‘Death and the Miser’

Bosch presents the fifth temptation of avarice in his painting “Death and the Miser.” The miser is shown in a bed at the end of his life. An angel sits behind him and urges him to look above and beyond temptation, while a demon presents him a money bag. 

The miser doesn’t seem to acknowledge the angel nor does he look up. Instead, he appears to reach for the money bag and looks at Death, who creeps around an open door with an arrow in hand and ready to take the old man’s life.

In the lower section of the image, the miser is depicted before he was dying. He is storing money away in a bag that a demon holds open for him. He holds a rosary in his hand and a key hangs from his waist. The rosary is for his spiritual beliefs, and the key is for the chest in which he locks away his money.

In “Early Netherlandish Painting,” authors John Oliver Hand and Martha Wolff suggest that the rat-like demon under the chest is holding something like a financial document, which strengthens the suggestion that the miser is tempted by avarice.

A Deeper Look at Temptation

Bosch depicted the battle over the soul of a miser tempted by avarice. The angel who urges the miser to look up provides the appropriate response to the temptation. 

The temptation is earthly yet ephemeral. We come into this world with nothing and we leave with nothing. This dying man cannot take the money he has hoarded with him after death. Instead, he should let it go and move beyond and above worldly temptations. Why is the miser still concerned with his money, with death around the corner? 

This question leads me to an insight into the deeper nature of some temptations. It’s not that the miser is simply tempted by money and puts some away from time to time. It’s not money that is the problem. Rather, the miser is an addict. What may have started as a temptation is now a full-blown addiction. 

The miser’s addiction, like all addictions, is irrational and overwhelms him so that he makes destructive decisions he may not want to make—like ignoring the encouragement of the angel. Sometimes addiction can reveal how we as human beings feel about our self-worth. Maybe the miser feels he needs money to compensate for his perceived insecurities and inadequacies. 

We can become addicted to things that make us feel worthy or that seem to fill an emptiness in our lives; we can become addicted to things that prevent us from experiencing the pain of taking a good long look at who we are truly. 

And who are we, truly? Many find meaning in their lives through their religious or spiritual practice. The miser wants to be—or believes himself to be—spiritual, as we see by his rosary. But is he truly a spiritual person? This is where the meaning of avarice is not quite what it seems on the surface. 

It’s clear to me that the miser wants to be a person of faith, but his addiction to hoarding money is too strong and he is unable to let it go. Bosch depicted the healthy miser as straddling two ways of life: He holds on to both his rosary and his money.

Yes, the miser is greedy for money, but he is also greedy in another way. He wants the best of both worlds: He wants the satisfaction of hoarding money, and he wants the rewards of being a spiritually inclined person. 

But his avarice, like most addictions, will ultimately neither satisfy nor reward him and, in the end, will destroy his life.

Bosch has shown me that addiction and spirituality are incompatible. I cannot be a spiritual person and indulge in worldly addictions. Addiction only interferes with my ability to lead a spiritually righteous life. The angel pointing above is a reminder for me that my own spirituality will deepen when I put my efforts, the strength of my will, toward transcending my addictions. And in doing so, the art of dying well becomes inseparable from the art of living well. 

Art has an incredible ability to point to what can’t be seen so that we may ask “What does this mean for me and for everyone who sees it?” “How has it influenced the past and how might it influence the future?” “What does it suggest about the human experience?” These are some of the questions we explore in our series Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart.

Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist. He is currently a doctoral student at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).