Hieronymus Bosch Ship of Fools symbolism
Dutch master Hieronymus Bosch (about 1450-1460 – 1516) painted his “Ship of Fools” (Oil on wood. Paris, France, the Louvre) around 1490 – 1500. The plot of “Ship of Fools” recalls the medieval tradition to get rid of the crazy, putting them on the ship and sending away from the city. Ship, or rather fragile boat symbolizes here pre-reformed Church, which the artist considered the seat of all vices, denying its celestial being. Not by chance, the master painted on the ship a nestled monk with a nun, and on the table next to them – Cherry (berry, symbolizing lust).
The rowers of a little vessel are only interested in hanging festive pancake. Paddle on a boat is a large kitchen spoon, which is convenient to scoop splashing overboard turbid wine. It is offered to sitting in the boat slowly drowning in the “sweet sea” people. A glutton is trying to climb the mast of the ship, that looks like a dressed up maypole. He is lead irresistibly by tied to the trunk a flavorful roast goose. At the stern sits a lonely clown. He probably had to steer the ship on course, although he, like the others, does not care where to swim. In the distance the sun rises, glows turquoise water, but the wind blows the ship in the opposite direction…
“Ship of Fools” exemplifies the human condition. The painting is dense in symbolism. The surviving painting 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.
For contemporaries of Hieronymus Bosch his paintings had more sense than to a modern audience. The necessary explanations to the subjects medieval man received from a variety of characters, which abound in paintings of Bosch. The value of many characters already irretrievably lost, the characters have changed meanings depending on the context, they are interpreted differently in different sources – from the mystical treatises to practical magic, from folklore to ritual performances.
A significant number of characters of Bosch are alchemical. Alchemy in the late Middle Ages was a kind of cultural phenomenon, clearly bordering on heresy, a fantastic option of chemistry. Its adherents sought to transformation (“transmutation”) of base metals into gold and silver using an imaginary substance – “philosopher’s stone”. Bosch gives alchemy negative, demonic traits. Alchemical conversion step is encoded in the color transitions; crenelated towers, hollow trees, fires, being symbols of Hell, while hinting at the fire in the experiments of the alchemists; same sealed container or melting horn – it is also the emblem of black magic and the devil.
Bosch uses common in the Middle Ages symbolism bestiary – “unclean” animals in his paintings – a camel, rabbit, pig, horse, stork and many others. Toad in alchemy is sulfur – a symbol of the devil and death, as well as all dry – trees, skeletons of animals.
Other common symbols: a staircase – a symbol of the way to the knowledge of alchemy, or sexual intercourse; inverted funnel – the attribute of fraud or false wisdom; key (often in the form is not intended to open) – cognition or sexual organ; severed leg, traditionally associated with injuries or torture, while in Bosch’s paintings also associated with heresy and sorcery; Arrow – symbolizes “evil”. Sometimes it sticks across hats, sometimes pierces the body, sometimes even plugged into the anus of a half-naked person (which also means an allusion to the “tainted”).
Owl – in Christian paintings can be interpreted not in an antique-mythological sense (as a symbol of wisdom). Bosch depicted an owl on many of his paintings, he made it sometimes contexts to the person who conducted himself insidiously or indulged in mortal sin. Therefore, it is assumed that the owl is evil as a night bird and predator, and symbolizes stupidity, spiritual blindness and cruelty of all earthly things; black birds – sin.