Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Hieronymus Bosch - The Ship of Fools

The ship of fools is an allegory that has long been a fixture and reminder in Western literature and art. The allegory depicts a vessel populated by human inhabitants who are deranged, frivolous, or oblivious, passengers aboard a ship without a pilot, and seemingly ignorant of their own direction. This concept makes up the framework of the 15th century book Ship of Fools (1494) by Sebastian Brant, which served as the inspiration for Bosch's famous painting, Ship of Fools: a ship—an entire fleet at first—sets off from Basel to the paradise of fools. In literary and artistic compositions of the 15th and 16th centuries, the cultural motif of the ship of fools also served to parody the 'ark of salvation' (as the Catholic Church was styled).

Ship of Fools (painted c. 1490–1500) is a painting by Hieronymus Bosch which shows prodigal humans wasting their lives instead of spending it in "useful" ways. The painting is dense in symbolism:

The owl in the tree is symbolic of heresy, as is the Muslim crescent on the pink banner that flies from the ship's mast.

The lute and bowl of cherries have erotic associations.
The people in the water may represent the sins of gluttony or lust.
The inverted funnel is symbolic of madness.
The large roast bird is a symbol of gluttony.
The knife being used to cut it down may be a phallic symbol or it may be symbolic of the sin of anger.

A monk and a nun are singing together. This has some erotic overtones (especially with the presence of the aforementioned lute) since men and women in monastic orders were supposed to be separate.

The painting as we see it today is a fragment of a triptych that was cut into several parts. The Ship of Fools was painted on one of the wings of the altarpiece, and is about two thirds of its original length. The bottom third of the panel belongs to Yale University Art Gallery and is exhibited under the title Allegory of Gluttony. The wing on the other side, which has more or less retained its full length, is the Death of the Miser, now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. The two panels together would have represented the two extremes of prodigiality and miserliness, condemning and caricaturing both.

The painting is oil on wood, measuring 58 cm x 33 cm (23" x 13"). It is on display in the Musée du Louvre, Paris.

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