Themes and titles of paintings are often opaque, leaving the viewer wondering how to read an image. This weekend I’m going to help you decode two potentially puzzling groups of paintings: today I tackle the Ship of Fools, and tomorrow Death and the Maiden.
Probably the most famous painting with the current title The Ship of Fools is a fragment in the Louvre painted by Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450–1516) as part of what is now believed to have been a Wayfarer Triptych from the period 1500-10. This theme is drawn from a section in Plato’s Republic, in which the ancient Greek philosopher uses an allegory to criticise systems of government based not on experts but on (a flawed) democracy.
Plato’s allegory is that government by democracy (or similar means) is like a ship full not of specialists with training and experience, but a group of ignorant fools:
“Imagine then a fleet or a ship in which there is a captain who is taller and stronger than any of the crew, but he is a little deaf and has a similar infirmity in sight, and his knowledge of navigation is not much better. The sailors are quarrelling with one another about the steering – every one is of opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation and cannot tell who taught him or when he learned, and will further assert that it cannot be taught, and they are ready to cut in pieces any one who says the contrary. They throng about the captain, begging and praying him to commit the helm to them; and if at any time they do not prevail, but others are preferred to them, they kill the others or throw them overboard, and having first chained up the noble captain’s senses with drink or some narcotic drug, they mutiny and take possession of the ship and make free with the stores; thus, eating and drinking, they proceed on their voyage in such a manner as might be expected of them. Him who is their partisan and cleverly aids them in their plot for getting the ship out of the captain’s hands into their own whether by force or persuasion, they compliment with the name of sailor, pilot, able seaman, and abuse the other sort of man, whom they call a good-for-nothing; but that the true pilot must pay attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds, and whatever else belongs to his art, if he intends to be really qualified for the command of a ship, and that he must and will be the steerer, whether other people like or not – the possibility of this union of authority with the steerer’s art has never seriously entered into their thoughts or been made part of their calling. Now in vessels which are in a state of mutiny and by sailors who are mutineers, how will the true pilot be regarded? Will he not be called by them a prater, a star-gazer, a good-for-nothing?”
Plato, ‘The Republic’ book 6, translated by Benjamin Jowett, Wikisource.
In 1494, Sebastian Brant (1458–1521) developed this allegory into a complete book, in which he detailed many human mistakes and shortcomings. Its title is Das Narrenschiff, the Ship of Fools, and it was illustrated with a series of woodcuts made by an unknown artist. I show here the same prints, taken from an English translation, Shyp Of Foles Of The Worlde published slightly later by Alexander Barclay.
The woodcut above is featured on the title page, and that below is a more detailed view of the ship included later in the text. The fools are drinking, arguing, and one is hanging over the side, about to be thrown overboard.
Until late in the twentieth century, it was assumed that Bosch’s panel The Ship of Fools was a standalone painting, a response to Sebastian Brant’s book published just a few years earlier.
The Ship of Fools is actually a small boat, into which six men and two women are packed tight. Its mast is unrealistically high, bears no sail, and has a large branch lashed to the top of it, in which is an owl. The occupants are engaged in drinking, eating what appear to be cherries from a small rectangular tabletop, and singing to the accompaniment of a lute being played by one of the women.
One man at the bow is vomiting overboard, near a large fish which is strung from the branch of a small tree. Another of the passengers holds a large spoon-like paddle, which would be of little or no use either for propulsion or steering.
There are four additional characters (all men): two are swimming by the side of the boat, one, dressed as a fool, is perched high up forward in among the rigging, and the fourth has climbed a tree on the bank to try to cut down the carcass of a chicken from high up the mast. The vessel flies a long red pendant from high on its mast, with a gold crescent moon on it. The distance shows relatively flat countryside.
The boating party are seen engaged in lustful and drunken activities, once again showing Bosch’s association between music and sin, and the symbolism of fruit. The man and woman seated opposite one another by the tabletop, providing the musical entertainment, appear to be a monk and a nun.
Research in the late twentieth century showed that this panel was but one fragment from a triptych. Below the Ship of Fools is another fragment showing scenes of gluttony and lust, on the water and the bank. This makes up the left wing, with Death and the Miser forming the right wing. The centre panel is still missing, making it impossible to make any firm conclusions about the theme of the whole triptych, but it has now been matched with Bosch’s The Wayfarer (or Pedlar) forming its exterior.
This is a modern reconstruction of the outer panels, as remain.
As far as I can tell, that was the last painting of the Ship of Fools until the twentieth century. William Etty’s Youth on the Prow, and Pleasure at the Helm (1830-2) has some similarities, but uses Thomas Gray’s poem The Bard from 1757 as its literary reference, not Plato.
Then, on the cover of the German art magazine Jugend (‘Youth’) in 1930, Franz Sedlacek’s painting Das Narrenschiff (Ship of Fools) may have come as a surprise. I don’t know how political this was intended to be: the magazine had earlier been at the heart of Art Nouveau, and was the origin of Jugendstil. But a few years after this was published, it aligned itself with National Socialism. I rather hope that with its clear reference to Plato’s allegory this was a last cry for help, seeing what was about to happen in Germany at the time.
Coming right up to the very recent past, Plato’s allegory is made explicit in Thomas Bühler’s Das Narrenschiff (Ship of Fools). Its Surrealist gathering of symbolic figures spares no one from shame. At its centre is the tree from the Garden of Eden, with the celebrated apple displayed on a placard, below which is the serpent.
Now, as we enter the 2020s, aren’t many of us just passengers in Ships of Fools?
Wikipedia has a list of other artistic references.
Matthijs Ilsink, Jos Koldeweij et al. (2016) pp 316-335 in Hieronymus Bosch, Painter and Draughtsman: Catalogue Raisonné, Yale UP and Mercatorfonds. ISBN 978 0 300 22014 8.