Ship of Fools (painting)
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
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. It is tempting to see the painting as a response to Sebastian Brant's Das Narrenschiff or even the illustrations of the first edition of 1493. Another possible source for the ship allegory is the 14th-century Le Pèlerinage de l'Âme by Guillaume de Deguileville, which was printed in Dutch in 1486 (shortly after William Caxton printed it as The Pylgremage of the Sowle in 1483).
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.