Teen Writing Contest at the Morgan Library & Museum

Winning Entries

Nicolas Kefalas, 13
Artwork: Hieronymus Bosch, Death and the Miser, ca. 1485–90

As I lay upon my bed, I think of the money I have earned, spent and all of the joys it has provided me. I have always stockpiled my money. To spend money for me is to lose a part of being. The thought of giving my “soul” to those needy wretches makes me sick to my very core. I look down at my feet and I see a small creature holding out a bag of coins to me. This offering brings tears of joy to my eye. As I reach towards the beautiful offering, a heavenly figure with wings like a dove rests a hand on my shoulder. It is an angel of the Lord. “Look up at God, my child,” the angel whispers to me. “Do not be afraid.” As I look up, expecting to see the Almighty, and to be ushered to the kingdom of heaven, I see a different figure. It has a face with little more than a skull and barely any skin left on its terrifying head. The figure has horrible pale skin and is holding a long thin arrow in one hand. I grab at the gold bag and leap out of bed but before I could touch the floor, I feel myself sinking down, down, down. My feet hit a burning substance. The very touch of it feels as though my skin and bone are melting. As I sink lower into its depths, I see that it is molten gold. I then realize, I cannot grasp it. I have become immersed in the gold. I am left to boil and burn in an endless agony for all eternity because of my greed.

Hieronymus Bosch
Death and the Miser, ca. 1485–90
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Samuel Kress Collection, 1952.5.33

Oliver Mak, 13
Artwork: The Prodigal Receives His Share, Germany, 1532 and Albrecht Dürer, The Prodigal Son amid Swine, ca. 1496.

Date: 20th February 1494
Dear Journal,
It was like a dream…. With a heart filled with ambition and a mind clouded by arrogance, I approached my father and demanded my inheritance, oblivious of the hurt and disappointment etched upon his face. I was tired of constraints set by societal conforms which expected me, the spare son, to be a warrior or a clergyman. I decided to pave my own path; and my father’s money was the way to achieve that. Armed with my newfound wealth, I set out into the world, eager to carve out my own destiny. The days blurred into nights as I reveled in the pleasures of the flesh, squandering my fortune in taverns and brothels, neglectful of the consequences of my actions. Each coin spent was a dagger plunged into the heart of my family's legacy, yet I remained blind to the wreckage I left in my wake. But as the coins emptied and the revelry faded, a gnawing emptiness settled in the pit of my stomach, a silent reminder of the hollowness of my pursuits. Surrounded by the stench of filth and regret, I found myself alone and destitute in a distant land, feeding swine in exchange for scraps of bread. It was in this moment of utter despair that the scales fell from my eyes, and I saw myself for what I truly was: an ungrateful son, lost and adrift in a sea of my own making. Oh, how I wish I could turn back the hands of time and heed the wisdom of my father’s counsel, to cherish the blessings I so callously cast aside. But now I know. Now I know that the riches that once held me captive now felt like chains dragging me down into the depths of my own depravity. And so, with a heart heavy with repentance and a spirit humbled by grace, I resolved to return to my father's house, to seek forgiveness and redemption. Will he welcome me with open arms, or will he cast me out as a lost cause? The uncertainty gnaws at my soul, yet I cling to the hope that love will conquer all. Oh, how money has impacted my behavior, leading me down a path of ruin and despair. But perhaps, in the crucible of suffering, I can find redemption and reclaim the true riches of the heart. As I trudged along the dusty road back to my father's estate, each step weighed heavily upon my weary frame, burdened not only by the physical toil but also by the weight of my own decisions. Memories of happier times flooded my mind like lazy afternoons spent beneath the shade of the old oak tree, listening to my father's tales of wisdom and wit; the warmth of my mother's embrace as she tucked me in at night, whispering words of love and encouragement. How far I had strayed from the path they had out for me, blinded by the allure of worldly pleasures and the false promises of fleeting riches. The journey back seemed endless, the landscape unchanged yet somehow unfamiliar, as if the very earth itself recoiled at my presence. Doubt crept into my heart like a serpent, whispering tales of rejection and scorn, taunting me with visions.

Albrecht Dürer, The Prodigal Son amid Swine, engraving, Germany, Nuremberg, ca. 1496.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 19.73.35.
The Metropolitan Museum of New York, Fletcher Fund, 1919.

The Prodigal Receives His Share Germany, 1532
Colorless glass, vitreous paint, and silver stain
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of George Blumenthal, 1941, 41.190.442.

Joe Kaecker, 16
Artwork: Strongbox, Germany, possibly Nuremberg, late sixteenth or early seventeenth century

To whom it may concern,

It is not the physical threat of lost goods and valuables which concern me. No, it is the very presence of those who dare covet what they have not earned, those with conceits of undeserved merit, who keep my mind in perpetual turmoil. I am called “wicked,” “greedy,” and “covetous,” but with the commoner nipping at the heels of skilled tradesmen through complaining and begging for charity, it is not difficult to understand why I shelter my riches from the outside. Behind nine steel bolts.

As the sun rises in the morning to batter the earth with its ceaseless heat, so too does my hammer rise against the anvil, forging value and profit from my strikes. Each swing of the hammer and each bitter negotiation ultimately become food for my box, which even after twenty years in the blacksmith trade never seems to fill itself to my liking. Gold and silver, thalens and guldens. It’s all mine to keep locked away in my box. Behind nine steel bolts. Yet, in the darkness of night, as the embers of the forge dim and the clang of metal fades, the heat of discontent fills my spirit—a raging fire which no profit can quench. For as the pile of riches grows in my box, my future of mental tranquility seems to forever recede before me. What good is a steel box if it cannot safeguard my sanity from the penetrations of paranoia? What most consoles and torments me is hidden behind nine steel bolts.

Today was the day that my lifetime of suspicions finally became a reality: a peasant intruded into my shop with the intention of taking my rightful earnings. In truth, it was quite humorous; watching him unsuccessfully struggle with the intricately-forged bolt system and the weight of my formidable steel box was a joy that cannot be replicated by any sale. I waited with a menacing smile for the grimy peasant to understand that what I have earned, he cannot get. But as he quickly ran from the wrath of my hammer to face his dangerously slender children and tired-appearing spouse, I sensed an unfamiliar sensation wash over me.

I took a step towards my box, and another, and another, and began to undo the nine steel bolts. With all my strength, I lifted the lid of the box, heavy with my years of sin. Taking a deep breath, I reached into my profit pile and took out a golden coin—it was shiny, the perfect type to keep. As I stared into my reflection on the coin, I saw a disgusting shell of a human, brought down by years of covetousness. I took another glance at the peasant family outside my shop, they were begging the baker for a loaf of bread. With the gold coin in hand, I made a dash towards the family, but my steps slowed as I approached the doorway and I seemed to approach an invisible wall. I could not move forward to help the family or rid myself of my overwhelming cupidity. Behind nine steel bolts, my wealth grows while my sanity withers. In my endless pursuit of profit, I am the richest and yet the poorest of men.


Strongbox Steel, Germany, possibly Nuremberg, late sixteenth or early seventeenth century 35 3/4 × 51 in., 768 lb. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1890, 90.13.1/ Gift of Henry G. Marquand

Sofia Hernandez, 17
Artwork: Hieronymus Bosch, Death and the Miser, ca. 1485–90

The miser in front of me has limbs no thicker than my own bare bones and with each breath he takes he wheezes all the more. As Death, I don’t find the gratification that others expect that I do. But I am at the miser’s door regardless.

What he doesn’t know, though, is that his fate is not yet decided. No matter how sharply his joints protrude through his egg-ish skin, or how many hours he spends asleep in a trance, I have not yet taken him. I do not have to, and I do not hope to. My target has not yet become my victim, and so he must make a choice.

While I stand at the door, my angelic complement persuades our target to reach not for the bag of gold that Greed offers at his bedside, but towards the light shining past the crucifix in his window. Even as Death, I wish that he will heed the advice of the angel, as to punish others for their greed is a punishment in itself. In this way I do wish that my miser was predestined. In this way I wish people knew me not as the villain but as the middleman. Greed, at the bedside of my miser, is the real servant death, as to tempt any helpless, mortal creature with a sack of riches represents the true core of all evil.

I knew that my miser was skeptical. Given the extent of his suffering he was inclined to believe that he was predestined to die—that his reach towards salvation would have done him no more good than the gold he could leave to his miser children. But his uncertainty persisted, with his hand—and mind—reaching towards the gold while his eyes—and heart—reached towards salvation.

My friend, the angel on the miser’s shoulder, began to sing. He threw his hands in the air, he avoided locking eyes with the impure soul of Greed on the opposite bedside, and he summoned the light from the blinding sun through the window’s crucifix. But my miser wouldn’t obey.

My miser’s hand reached closer to Greed’s riches, the beam of light grew duller, and the Angel became louder as he begged for life to hold on to our poor miser who was just too human to hold on himself. Even I, death, joined the Angel’s chants. I begged my miser not to give in to Greed, to hold onto the light and the life that was still within his grasp, so that I wouldn’t have to release my arrow and take another soul on behalf of sinful Greed.

My miser’s hand reached another inch or so, and my Deathly instinct moved me that much closer to his bedside. His skeletal fingers reached not towards the light, but outstretched towards Greed. The Angel raised his voice, I prepared my arrow. The miser’s fingers curled around Greed’s temptation, the Angel began to cry. Greed snickered, and Greed escaped out of the same door through which I was summoned to and arrived. It was my obligation, and so I, Death, pierced my miser’s redeemable heart with my arrow, looking out the window through which once shone the light of vindication.

Never have I wanted to be the messenger of death. But there is a reason Greed is one of the Seven Deadly.

Hieronymus Bosch
Death and the Miser, ca. 1485–90
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Samuel Kress Collection, 1952.5.33

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