|The Fool in Mainz by |
In the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., there is an early 16th century painting, “The Card Players,” attributed to Lucas van Leyden (1525-1569). In it, we see people seated around a table holding large playing cards and placing their bets. In another of his paintings, “The Fortune Teller,” a oddly dressed man stands behind the fortune teller, and he is holding the puppet-head. Obviously, this man is the fool. (For a lively discussion and speculation about this painting see Mary Greer’s Tarot Blog.) With the invention of the Gutenberg Press in 1439, reformers such as Erasmus of Rotterdam published “In Praise of Folly” in 1509, where he regarded “man as the culprit for society’s ills.” For him, the follies were endless. Sebastian Brant of Switzerland published “Das Narrenschiff” (The Ship of Fools), attacking human foolishness by depicting man’s sorry condition in clever quips and woodcuts, beginning with a ship loaded with fools, gamblers, idlers, gossips, and gluttons, and so on. A few of the woodcuts were by Albrecht Durer. In our era, the artist and art historian, Brian Williams, has written a book and illustrated a tarot deck called “The Book of Fools” inspired by Brant’s work. It includes an excellent translation of Brant’s commentary about each picture and an accurate redrawing of the original illustrations.
It’s important to realize the new Protestantism was spreading in Flanders during Pieter Bruegel’s time and he was one of the first artists to portray peasant folk realistically as they were going about their daily work. His paintings were like many layered stories of peasant life filled with a depth of field vista and minute details. We see the fool entertaining (the background) in the painting “The Peasant Dance.” It seems both he and Bosch were picking up on the “signs of the times.” The Reformation was underway with uprisings, rebellions, and political wars that were being fought in many parts of Medieval Europe. Bruegel was careful to disguise his painting, “The Massacre of the Innocents", as a depiction of the Biblical story, when in reality, it was showing the massacre of the peasants (peasant wars in Germany of 1524-1526). These were times of persecution, of rebellion against the Spanish King, and religious wars between Protestants and Catholics. The political order was breaking down. Fear of the “Devil” was rampant. Martin Luther had posted his thesis for reform of the Catholic Church in 1517. Simultaneously, peasants in the lowlands of the Netherlands and Germany were living in fear from cruel lords and landowners. The “Inquisition” was ongoing as the church was attempting to root out heresy and any remnants of paganism. So-called witches were being burned at the stake. Corruption and greed was rampant, especially among the clergy. For instance, with the sale of “indulgences” by the Catholic Church, you could buy your way to heaven by filling out a form and paying a fee to signify your repentance for a specific sin. In relation to that, around 10,000 little tin badges have been found recently, in Bosch's’ home town of Den Bosch according to Theo Toebosch’s article in Archaeology Magazine. Many resemble the surreal images seen in Bosch's paintings and some are downright immoral (Article in Archaeology, “Digging the Fantastical,” 2002, p. 37). Their actual meaning is unknown. They may have been souvenirs for travelers. Some may have been presented to repentant sinners as a token of penitence for a sin, or used as amulets protecting against negative demons. Perhaps they were magical talismans intended to increase one’s powers. The selling of Indulgences was one of the main issues that prompted reformist Martin Luther to take action against the Catholic Church and when the Reformation began it created even more death and turmoil for the peasants. There were peasant and merchant revolts against the nobility, their knights, corrupt church abbots, and overlords. Over one hundred thousand to three hundred thousand people died in these wars. You can find these themes in the art of both Bosch and Bruegel.
In an article by Thomas Meehan, “The Flight From Reason” (Horizon, Vol.XII, American Heritage Pub. 1970) he sees parallels in ”patterns of behavior” between our times now, and the behavior of Europeans between the 15th and 16th centuries. Meehan was comparing the seemingly free love era, the peace movement, and “hippy craze” happening during the Vietnam War in the 1960’s and 70’s, to the late Middle Ages, and it seems times haven’t changed much since then. Of course he was speaking in generalizations. He noted that, since 1914 [to 1970] the astounding fact, that in the 20th century, over one hundred million people have been killed in wars. That doesn’t include the “Kosovo, Herzegovina” war, or the Iraq, Afghanistan wars, or “Israeli, Gaza” conflict. Meehan notes that after the death and destruction in many European cities from The Plague in the 14th century, people became obsessed with the fear of death, which may have led to increased rituals of frivolity and celebration, a kind of madness “…where the madman [the Fool] was applauded as a hero” in celebrations such as Carnival, Shrove Tuesday, (Mardi Gras) and theater comedy. The central panel in Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” may represent the peasants search for utopia.
History repeats itself as they say. In our time, with the European holocaust in WWII, the building of the atomic bomb and the holocaust of Hiroshima and, more recently, the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in Japan, we are still obsessed with the fear of death from nuclear attack or nuclear accident. Some people in the USA are building bomb shelters again since the 911 WTO attack on New York City just as they did during the “Cuban Missile Crisis” in 1962. Similar to partying in the 16th century, our own current celebrations and partying takes place on the tailgates of cars before watching an ear-deafening football game. How about those mind-numbing couch potato parties during nightly TV shows (theater)? The kind of ridiculousness portrayed in 15th and 16th century Flemish paintings seems echoed in today’s TV ads in a new form. What about that green Gecko selling insurance? And we watch brown bears squeezing toilet paper, blond dogs driving cars, and squirrels hi-fiving when they cause a car crash.That’s not to mention fat green mucous blobs wearing clothes and running away from boxes of cold medicine.
It’s apparent Bruegel painted the land of Cockayne (cockaigne - a land of cakes; a cock’s egg), an imaginary land of extreme luxury popular in the minds of medieval peasants in contrast to their hard life of feudal times. It was a fictional utopia where pleasure was foremost. We see drunken and gluttonous peasants sleeping, dancing and celebrating in some of Bruegel’s paintings, especially “Luilekkerland” in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. This imaginary life was relaxed, luscious and delicious. The terms “Luilekkerland in Flemish; Scharaffenland in Germany mean “the land of milk and honey.” In it, there were no lords or masters; no work; plenty of food: gingerbread houses, pies in the sky. It was the land of the absurd, of ridiculous parody, carnival celebrations, and satire. In London, it was the land of the Cockneys. Bruegel’s paintings and prints give us some clues to the meaning of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, especially his central panel in “The Garden of Earthly Delights” where we see parades of hybrid animals and little nude people dancing, eating cherries and strawberries, while experiencing all sorts of pleasure. Bruegel literally copied some of the strange animalistic and human-hybrid images seen in Bosch’s paintings.
Much has been written from all different perspectives about what Bosch was illustrating. Some of the interpretations are as far-fetched as the paintings themselves. But one concept seems plausible, which asserts these paintings presented a satire on peasant life, and was mocking the corruption of monks and nuns of the Catholic Church. This is apparent in Bosch’s painting “The Ship of Fools” with a monk and a nun singing while trying to catch a swinging pastry in their mouths. (See article by Peter Hofstee where he describes an “Attack by Means of the Absurd”). Both Bosch and Bruegel used Flemish Proverbs as themes for their art. One painting in particular, “The Blue Cloak” or “Proverbs” by Bruegel depicts some stories we read in Aesop’s Fables. For instance, the story of the “Fox and the Stork” can be seen in the midst of this picture, the meaning of which is “one bad turn deserves another.” There are several “fools” and lots of people doing foolish things illustrating various proverbs of the time, such as: “Crying over spilt milk”; “throwing pearls before the swine”; “making ends meet,” “banging ones’ head on a brick wall,” and so on.
This same “pleasure palace” can be found in Old French and Middle Dutch analogous texts and manuscript illuminations. An English 13th century poem in the British Library, London, titled “The Land of Cokaygne,” satirizes monastic life. It examines vice and folly in the land of the absurd in lyrical form. This could provide a clue to the bizarre creatures for the central panel of Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” and the ghastly scenes he painted of Hell. Possibly, Bosch saw human behavior as lacking any real spiritual quality so he made everything as absurd as possible, subverting the established order. Even his side-panel of Hell was filled with diabolical demons doing unspeakable things to people as punishment for their sins, a sort of overkill of diabolical threats by the church. There is much controversy about Bosch’s religious meaning. Did he read St. Augustines works? Dante? Was this a commentary mocking the church in going overboard in selling “Indulgences “ for the people’s sins - with their long lists of every possible sin? The town where Bosch lived and worked was one of the main places for selling indulgences and the church’s agents were making a tidy profit. It seems Bosch couldn’t have made life appear any worse in the depiction of despicable acts in the “Hell” side of his triptychs. The creepy hybrid monsters are so grotesque they are comical and, today, we see them as completely ridiculous and absurd. Yet, on the other hand, were they revealing the insidious, irrational “dark side” of human nature? As Tarot cards emerged out of this period of time, we can see how the Major Arcana cards were also an expression of a certain “Utopia” concluding with the joyful dance of freedom in “The World” card. The Fool has experienced the lessons of each card on the spiritual path and emerges triumphant in the end.