“Sins of the Flesh and human Folly. A Study of the Ship of Fools by Jheronimus Bosch” (Blandine Landau) 2010
[in: Eric De Bruyn and Jos Koldeweij (eds.), Jheronimus Bosch. His Sources. 2nd International Jheronimus Bosch Conference, May 22-25, 2007, Jheronimus Bosch Art Center, ’s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands. Jheronimus Bosch Art Center, ’s-Hertogenbosch, 2010, pp. 210-229]
Recent research has shown that Bosch’s Ship of Fools (Paris, Louvre) was part of a triptych which also included the so-called Allegory of Pleasures (New Haven), the Death of the Miser (Washington D.C.) and The Pedlar (Rotterdam). Thus, when analysing this painting it is important to recognize it is merely a fragment of a larger context.
Most likely Bosch’s Ship of Fools is a satirical depiction of the corruption of society and the clergy with very complex links to contemporary folklore and literature. The painting is filled with symbols of sinful pleasure, gluttony, debauchery and lust such as the crescent moon, the roasted chicken, the vomiting man, the pitcher, the lute, the cherries, the spoon-like rudder and the naked persons in the water. The fool who is sitting on a dead branch is both the example to avoid and the uncommitted viewer who denounces the immorality of what is going on. The image of foolish people gathered in a boat was well-known during Bosch’s time and the theme of human folly was also a very common one. The Ship of Fools can be seen as a denunciation of drunkenness, lust, deceptive appearances and fake religious and more globally as an image of human folly.
But who were the fools according to Bosch? First the ecclesiastics, who have a central presence in this painting. Bosch is not attacking the Church itself, though, only those members of the Church who show foolish behaviour. Then there are the women, especially old women, and also the poor and the outsiders who are not able to sustain themselves.
The original context of Bosch’s paintings is the thinking of urban citizens in late-medieval Brabant. The fear of material and moral ruin can be considered as the main characteristics of this middle-class culture around 1500, to which Bosch himself also belonged. In this period the fool refers to all simple-minded men and sinners who are doomed to eternal damnation. In Bosch’s paintings these foolish people provide an elite Netherlandish audience with pictorial counterexamples designed to confirm its identity through ‘negative self-definition’.
In The Ship of Fools Bosch focuses on gluttonous and lustful behaviour. We should now study the panels in New Haven, Washington and Rotterdam in the same way to find out what the rest of the triptych (and maybe even the – lost – central panel) was about. Perhaps the theme of the complete triptych was the Seven Deadly Sins.
[explicit 18th May 2012]