The Cardinal, one the highest officials in the Catholic Church, is shown as a corrupt ecclesiastic. He is selling off indulgences, special dispensations which during a dark era in the Church were often sold to those who could pay for them, rather than those who deserved them. Dispensations amounted to supposed licenses or permissions to do what would otherwise be forbidden by church law, or spiritual indulgences such as purported absolution of sins or exemption from various religious duties. They were sold to the highest bidder, though often they were used to also extract coins from the gullible lower classes.
These indulgences were essentially licenses to break rules of the Church, such as allowing the eating of meat on Fridays, or forgiving sins for a price. They were a fraudulent way for corrupt church officials to fleece money from gullible citizens, and represented a perversion of the Church's moral authority. Even as the cardinal is about to enjoy his ill-gotten gains, death is sitting beside him. Soon he will face judgment for his sins, and no indulgence will save him.
Previous: The King
Next: The Empress
Holbein - the Dance of Death.