If you have had the good fortune to encounter the art of Hieronymus Bosch, and, more fortunate still, the leisure to peruse and contemplate his universe, you may have become as fascinated as I have been with his dramatically powerful imagination and his vivid portrayals of humanity preyed upon by a host of demons unleashed by their own frailty.
I had glimpsed his works occasionally, but it was not until a client asked us to show him “The Ship of Fools” as part of one of our private tours of the Louvre (https://www.parisluxurytours.com/museum-tour-paris/) that I took the time to look carefully at one of his works. It is located in the Richelieu wing, second floor, room 815, and it is so small (58 x 33 cm) that I walked by it several times, assuming that I was looking something much more imposing. Fortunately for us, that was during a dry run of the tour that I often undertake when we are asked to do something we have not done before.
Through that tiny portal I entered another world, one in which human beings of the late 15th century are portrayed, but in a way you are not used to seeing: 14 lunatics are in or near a boat and each one is frenetically engaged in exaggerated consumption of food, drink, or various merriments, none of which is portrayed in ways that would tempt you. They are passengers adrift in a boat that has no master, oblivious of where they are going. Above them all, looking down from a tree (for this boat has a tree for a mast) is the one sober figure, an owl, which observes the spectacle of human folly below.
This work is part of a triptych known as “The Prodigal Son,” several parts of which have been separated. It is the upper two thirds of the left out-side wing, and the lower third can be found at Yale University, where it is exhibited as “The Allegory of Gluttony.” See the image below that shows them together.
The right wing depicted “Death and the Miser,” and when the wings were closed, you could see “The Prodigal Son.” The ensemble was meant to depict the consequence of human misconduct, and was an appeal to reasonable behaviour.
The upscale town of Saint Germain-en-Laye, a suburb to the west of Paris, is home to another Bosch painting, called “The Conjurer.” It is also a work devoted to a facet of the human folly subject, this time gullibility. The shyster performing the ‘trick’ of pulling toads out of his mouth is the set-up for a confederate to relieve the fascinated observer who is leaning over the table of his purse. Unfortunately, it is a work that is only seen when it is lent for exhibitions. Otherwise it is kept in a safe, and is a true obscure treasure.
The Bosch works discussed above are among the most tame of his oeuvre. If you delve further into his world, be prepared for an extraordinary depiction of horrors and devils released from an unrestrained imagination, which prey upon the sinners who were so often at the forefront of Bosch’s preoccupations. Lest you think that such medieval concerns are irrelevant to our contemporary world, consider the timeliness of the allegory of “The Ship of Fools.” It evokes quite nicely the potential for calamity when Ships of State fall into the hands of lunatics.