The wonderfully varied symbolic and metaphoric associations of hay mirror its cultural and economic importance in the history of humanity. Hay has variously symbolized wealth and poverty, sexuality, love, life and death. The somewhat dated saying in our own culture "That ain't hay" (meaning "that's not entirely worthless") is remotely connected to the beliefs and rituals of the Low Countries of Europe over half a millenium ago.
Below we quote at length from a brilliant iconographic analysis of the meaning of hay in 16th century religious art. While the most famous examples are the two versions of the "Hay Wain" of Hieronymous Bosch, the same theme is illustrated by Hogenberg's "Al Hoy"
(a 1559 etching), "The Hay Wain" (an anonymous 16th century engraving), and "Christ Sitting on a Haystack" (an anonymous 16th century etching). Our text is also illustrated by the astonishing 1550-70 tapestry by a Brussels workshop, "Hay Wain in a Globe."
"[Hay] was a common motif in 16th and 17th century Netherlandish folklore. Its basic meaning was 'insignificance' and 'triviality'. Influenced by the religious and moralistic tradition, which viewed all 'worldly things' as vanity, hay served in vernacular literature as a symbol of earthly goods and worldly behaviour. The pursuit of material possessions and physical pleasure could thus be illustrated by people trying to grab handfuls of hay at any price. The outcome is fatal, as it is the devil who threatens humankind and entices it into earthly desires, leading ultimately to eternal damnation.
"Bosch did not invent the hay wain motif, which had previously appeared in 15th century songs. Hay wains also featured in urban parades, carrying emblematic personages with banderoles identifying them as different forms of objectionable behaviour. Several scenes in the foreground of Bosch's Hay Wain are comparable with the texts or prosen that appeared in the banderoles displayed in the parade. Other examples of behaviour that were characterized as 'hay' were gluttony, folly, lechery, avarice and deceit. In other words, the Hay Wain is a critical mirror of various objectionable and foolishly sinful forms of conduct, as reflected in the earliest interpretation of Bosch's painting. This comes from a text by Ambrosio de Morales (1513-91) about the 'Table of Cebes', a literary text dating possibly from the 1st century AD, which was drawn on several times by artists in the 16th an 17h centuries... '"hooiwagen ... in Castilian, amounts to "wagon of trivial things". This hay wain is thus truly a "trash cart" and its name matches its meaning...'
"Morales' view is correct and is not a reinterpretation. He knew the Dutch title of the painting and its metaphorical significance. 'Hay" had a variety of connotations for 15th century people -- earthly goods, avarice, triviality, transience and deception..."
Source: Paul Vandenbroek "Hieronymus Bosch: the wisdom of the riddle" in Hieronymus Bosch: The Complete Paintings and Drawings. Rotterdam: NAi; Ghent/Amsterdam: Ludion; 2001. The English version (Ted Alkins, translation) was distributed by Abrams. The quotation and illustrations are on pages 134-136.
E. Haverkamp Begemann's commentary on a drawing by Frans Pourbus the Elder in the Yale collections cites another related Netherlandish proverb: "De werelt is een hooiberg; elk plukt ervan wat hij kan krijgen (The world is a haystack and everybody grabs from it as much as he can get)." The Pourbus drawing, in contrast to the other images in this essay, has no haywain, but the haystack in the center and the wisps being offered by the jesters to a woman, a monk and a soldier clearly signify both human greed and the triviality and transitoriness of our material possessions. (Haverkamp Begemann. European Drawings and Watercolors in the Yale University Art Gallery, 1500-1900. Yale UP, 1970. plate 260). Evidently, in light of the Vandenbroek and Begemann essays, our quest for all the hay paintings, may be simply a TRIVIAL PURSUIT!
Trivial footnote: both the Prado and Escorial versions of the Hay Wain triptych are reproduced in the Bosch book cited above. A close comparison of these reproductions leads me to question whether the version shown on the ambitious web site boschuniverse.org is from the Prado, as claimed, since it resembles more closely the one in the Escorial (see for example the shape of the label in the center of the lower frame). Oddly enough, the clever animation reveals the Pedlar on the outside of the triptych, and this IS from the Prado version.