Ship of Fools

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!

10 thoughts on “Ship of Fools

  1. Fred says:

    I think it’s likely Bosch was a misanthrope who despised human weakness and held a belief system centered around sin and damnation. But to a modern eye his work is delightfully inventive and playful, more comical than horrible. I love the paintings of Bosch, but I can almost imagine the grotesque caricature he would make of me!

    • artmodel says:


      I think misanthrope is an appropriate term for Bosch. I actually like a lot of his work, mainly because he seems to have planted the seeds of surrealism which is fascinating to me. I don’t see his work quite as “playful” and “comical” as you do, but I’ll keep trying!


  2. Andrew says:

    “Humanity drifts on a tiny, cramped, aimless boat, its passengers acting like jackasses; stupid, corrupt, dissolute, succumbing to fatal character weaknesses. ”

    Your description sounds like it could be referring to either members of Congress or investment bankers. Maybe the painting is about a Goldman Sachs political fundraiser.

    • artmodel says:


      Can you imagine if Bosch had lived to see that devious, unscrupulous crowd? He’d probably have a heart attack! i like your point. Let’s hope those guys aren’t the true representation of human nature.

      Thanks for commenting!


  3. Mark says:

    Looks like my step-father-in-law’s family reunion.

    Seriously, I think that there are plenty of individual examples that would fill out the complement of many ships of fools. I don’t think humanity is characterized by its weakest members. However, we do tend to notice them more than the norm. And, in the right circumstances, they can be entertaining.

    • artmodel says:


      Yes, they can be entertaining for sure. And often the best characters in movies, books, etc. I hope you’re right that humanity isn’t characterized by its weakest members.

      You made me laugh with the “step-father-in-law’s family reunion” 😆

      Enjoyed your comments, thanks!


  4. Not quite sure I agree with you and Fred this time, Claudia. He was, of course a product of his times and his place -but I’ve always found a certain lightheartedness even in his darkest images. Shucky darn, he couldn’t have been too serious when, as you wander through his Garden of Earthly Delights, you find some folks pulling posies out of somebody’s butt! Regarding the Brotherhood of Our Lady, a conservative religious society, it was also a great place to find buyers for his paintings.

  5. Michael says:

    I think this painting deserves a little more attention as it illustrates an important shift in western ideology. The ship of fools reflects a growing reliance and insistence that human society’s can only function properly when guided by reason.

    During the renaissance, it was not uncommon to see or hear reference to ships of fools. River boatmen and merchants were often charged with the task of relieving growing cities of the “crazy” and “mentally insane.” Thus a boatman or merchant would arrive in a new town with a few “crazy” people and conveniently “forget” about them when it was time to depart. These fools were both viewed as both physical strangers in that they were foreigners to a city and as mental strangers in that they were incapable of communicating with the inhabitants in an acceptable manner.

    The tree at the top of the painting can be interpreted as representing the Tree of Knowledge from the Garden of Eden. In my interpretation, the fact that the tree has been cut down and abducted from its original place is meant to represent the way in which a society of people have changed, manipulated and enforced a particular kind of knowledge that all must abide by. This particular kind of knowledge is the rational objectivity would come to its peak in the scientific revolution and enlightenment periods. The people in the boat, nuns and priests as well as tradesman, are people of some power during the time period. Those outside the boat are those people who do not fit into the world view that they have constructed and touted as the absolute truth.

    A lot of what I am saying is informed by Michel Foucault’s interpretation put forth in the first chapter of The History of Madness (or Madness and Civilization). Needless to say, he does a much better job than I have done here.

    • artmodel says:


      I haven’t read Foucault’s analysis but it seems to me you’ve done a fine job. Bosch’s work prompts a great deal of interpretation, and what you stated about the tree interests me. Now I’m wondering about the long banner attached to it.

      Thanks very much for your comments!


  6. Is there any political motivation in determining authentic Bosch paintings? The Museo del Prado has at least two fakes. Supposedly painted by desciples of the master.

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