The fires of hell light up Teniers’s cave-like underworld with an eerie glow. An old man stands, hands raised in self-defence, his eyes wide with fear at the sight of the horrors around him. Weird creatures gather in glee to welcome another soul into the dreadful place that his greed and avarice have led him to.
The story – a parable that Christ told his disciples about the evil of gathering wealth without doing charitable deeds – comes from the Gospel of Luke. This picture shows the fate of the rich man who rejected the beggar Lazarus in his last hours: while Lazarus was carried to heaven, the rich man went to hell as a punishment. Flanders was a Catholic country and the idea of hell was very real, but sinners could receive forgiveness for their trespasses. This is a picture meant as a moral message, but perhaps with a light tone.
The story comes from the Gospel of Luke, the second of two similar parables that Christ told about the evil of gathering wealth without doing charitable deeds. This picture shows the fate of the rich man who rejected the beggar Lazarus in his last hours: while Lazarus was carried to heaven, the rich man suffered the torments of hell as a punishment. Teniers has given the man the long, ‘Eastern’ style robes widely thought appropriate for any biblical character, showing them as ‘purple and fine linen’ in accordance with the biblical account. These and the gold chains and rich fabrics suggest the wealth he has hoarded during his life.
The inhabitants of this underworld appear to have stemmed from the work of the great Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch, working a hundred years before Teniers, although his strange, nightmarish scenes were populated with creatures more surreal and disturbing than Teniers’s almost comic characters. They seem to be enjoying the situation: in the shadows on the left, a monkey waves a candle in the air while another blows on a recorder. Opposite them squats a grinning, grotesque figure playing the mandolin, as a strange half-fish, half-human creature opens its gaping mouth to sing. A fearsome-looking demon holds the reins to lead the old man to his fate, while a man with a candle stuck into a funnel that he wears as a hat blows on bagpipes that are actually a live goose.
Flanders was a Catholic country and the idea of hell was very real. But sins could be confessed and the sinner could receive absolution – forgiveness for these trespasses and a guarantee of a place in heaven. This is a picture meant as a moral message, but perhaps with a light tone. Viewers could be and probably were entertained, sitting in the safety of their own fireside and picking out the various outlandish figures, while also taking in the message, although maybe not always too literally.
In The Covetous Man, painted at around the same time, Teniers has treated the subject much more subtly, bringing a rich old man close to us and in focus, with his features shown in great, almost tactile detail. He is believably an old man facing his end with a sense of real fear, and his arresting image may have more success than the melodramatic character in this picture at pointing to the moral of the tale.
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