Art History's Obsession with the Seven Deadly Sins

Lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride - a list to separate the saints from the sinners. While most of us wouldn’t think twice about admitting to those extra glasses of wine or that album full of selfies, there was a time when the threat of an eternity in hell was all too real and these were words to live by.

The Seven Deadly Sins have been represented thousands of times throughout Western art history, but today we live in a very different society that encourages lusting after that celebrity and supersizing that meal. So how has the depiction of the Seven Sins changed within the art world over the years? Public House of Art explores…

Hieronymus Bosch. The Seven Deadly Sins and The Four Last Things. c. 1500.

The centre circle of this well known piece uses ‘real life’ scenes to represent the sins, portraying drunkards, dogs arguing over a bone, a crooked judge, and flirtatious daughters. Of the four remaining circles, three are meant to represent death, judgement, and hell - which doesn’t leave a lot of space to question whether or not you should have seconds.

Auguste Rodin. The Kiss. 1882.

The Kiss was originally titled “Francesca da Rimini” after the Italian noblewoman who was damned to hell after a long affair with her husband's brother (cue ‘Days of our Lives’ theme). On seeing the sculpture, critics ‘suggested’ changing the name to “The Kiss” as the mere reference to Francesca the lusty sinner was a big no no - much to the dismay of Rodin, who was actually trying to present Francesca as a symbol of women being an active part of a relationship, rather than the weak, submissive characters they were often portrayed as at the time.

Bruce Nauman. Virtues and Vices. 1983-88/2008.

Nauman admitted that neither him nor his team could remember all Seven Sins when they began the piece - an interesting thought considering a few hundred years ago these words ruled a large number of lives. By stripping away the dramatic imagery and using a medium more commonly seen in advertising, red light districts, the epic stories of hell and heaven seem to fade away and the fluidity of the meaning of the sins in today’s world shine through.

Elizabeth Koning. Invidia 2 (Envy). 2017. Photography. Edition of 30.

Are you envying her, or is she envying you? Get lost in the green tinted world created by Public House of Art’s own Elizabeth Koning. But be careful - envy is considered the most ingrained in human nature. Remember to love thy neighbour, and try not to turn your own world green as you get lost in the eyes of this beauty.

Indulge in our current collection “The Devil Inside Me” and revel with the other sinners, then post that selfie and buy a bottle instead of just a glass - life is too short for Bosch’s circles.

Written by Amsterdam-based freelance writer, Taryn Hart for The Public House of Art.



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