I’ve been meaning to get Hieronymus Bosch on this blog for the longest time now. Though I am inclined to feature art of beauty, nudity, and inspiring qualities, I am not averse to an occasional foray into the gloomy or grotesque. I have posted Caravaggio’s severed Goliath head which is pretty nasty. A dramatic, masterful painting, but still nasty. Bosch, however, differs from Caravaggio in that he employs allegory and symbolism, rather than realism, to depict the human condition. In the case of his 1500 work The Ship of Fools, that human condition is one of wretchedness and depravity.
Understanding the true motivations behind Bosch’s bizarre, often freakish imagery is difficult since few details of his life and personality are known. He kept no journals or diaries, and seems to have written not one letter – nothing that has survived at least. But we do know that Bosch’s works deal with the subjects of profound human failings, frailties, and sins, and have been called “wondrous and strange fantasies”, “gruesome to look at”, “morbid” and “sinister”, among other things. Loaded with demons, fanciful creatures, chimeras, and unfortunate souls, Bosch’s paintings are trying to tell us something about our inherent nature which is either evil or just plain pitiful.
In this painting The Ship of Fools we are, collectively, sad, desperate beings. Humanity drifts on a tiny, cramped, aimless boat, its passengers acting like jackasses; stupid, corrupt, dissolute, succumbing to fatal character weaknesses. There are nuns and monks in there, and I think the guy on the right is puking overboard. Truly a “ship of fools”:
Are we missing a satirical element in Bosch’s message here? Doubtful. One of the few things we know about Bosch’s biography is that he was a member of the Brotherhood of Our Lady, a conservative religious order. In Bosch’s place and time – a Dutch city in the late Middle Ages – religion still permeated life. So we can infer that Bosch was a strict moralist who subscribed to the doctrine that human nature is congenitally wicked and immoral. I hate to say it, but I suspect there is no hidden parody behind this painting. In other words, I think Bosch was dead serious and this is what he really thinks of us. But is he right? Are people, when left to their own devices, without adhering to a guiding moral code, nothing more than embarrassing losers who act out on their debauched tendencies? Personally, I like to think we all have something honorable and heroic inside us, so I’m gonna stick with that. Besides, Bosch needs to lighten up. A little “debauchery” now and then can be kind of fun 😉
Speaking of fun, I ask everyone to try and stop by the blog on Friday for a special celebration. See you then!