01 April 2014

Art for Lent (28): ‘The Ship of
Fools’ by Hieronymus Bosch

‘The Ship of Fools,’ by Hieronymus Bosch (ca 1450–1516)

Patrick Comerford

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways!
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.

– John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)

Today [1 April] is marked throughout much of the English-speaking world and in many parts of Europe as April Fools’ Day, a day for people play practical jokes and hoaxes on each other, so that victim becomes the April fools.

How did 1 April become April Fool’s Day?

The earliest record may be in an ambiguous reference in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1392). The “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” is set Syn March bigan thritty dayes and two. However, many scholars now believe that there is a copying error in the extant manuscripts and that Chaucer actually wrote “Syn March was gon.” If so, then this passage meant 32 days after April, or 2 May, which was the anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia in 1381.

Readers apparently misunderstood Chaucer’s line to mean “32 March,” or 1 April. In Chaucer’s tale, the vain cock Chauntecleer is tricked by a fox.

But the association may not have developed until the 16th century, after Pope Gregory XIII restored 1 January as New Year’s Day in his Gregorian Calendar.

The first English reference to foolish customs on this day dates from on 1 April 1686, when John Aubrey referred to the holiday as “Fooles holy day.” Over a decade later, on 1 April 1698, several people were tricked into going to the Tower of London to “see the Lions washed.”

Before the Gregorian Calendar was introduced, New Year’s Day was celebrated on 25 March, the Feast of the Annunciation, in many parts of Europe. It developed in some places into a week-long holiday ending on 1 April.

Perhaps those who celebrated the New Year on 1 January made fun of those who continued to celebrate it from 25 March to 1 April.

Two of my all-time April Fool pranks were the work of the BBC and the Guardian.

In 1957, the BBC staged the Swiss Spaghetti Harvest prank, with a fake news report of Swiss farmers picking freshly-grown spaghetti. The BBC were later flooded with questions about buying spaghetti plants.

The Guardian’s successful April Fool joke was a seven-page travel supplement on the tiny tropical republic of San Serriffe on 1 April 1977. San Serriffe was “a small archipelago, its main islands grouped roughly in the shape of a semicolon, in the Indian Ocean,” and was celebrating 10 years of independence.

The name San Serriffe and the shape of the islands were concocted from printing and typesetting terms. The two main islands were Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse, the indigenous islanders were Flongs, and the Republic is ruled by a dictator General MJ Pica. School subjects included A-level pearl-diving.

The supplement was designed by Philip Davies, the editorial was the work of the Foreign Editor, Geoffrey, and the advertising agency J Walter Thompson filled the advertising space on four of the seven pages, including one from Kodak running a competition for photographs of San Serriffe,

A pdf of the full first page of the special report on San Serriffe can be downloaded here.

My choice of a work of Art for Lent this morning [1 April 2014] is ‘The Ship of Fools’ by Hieronymus Bosch (ca 1450–1516). This is a fragment of the left wing of a triptych, painted ca 1490-1500 in oil on an oak panel. It measures 58 cm x 33 cm, and is now on display in the Musée du Louvre, Paris. It was given to the Louvre by Camille Benoît of Paris in 1918.

This painting is rich with symbolism and it is probably a satirical comment on Albrecht Dürer’s frontispiece of Sebastian Brant’s book of the same name.

As it is seen today in the Louvre, it 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. The bottom third of the panel belongs to Yale University Art Gallery and is exhibited under the title ‘Allegory of Gluttony’.

The wing on the other side, which has more or less retained its full length, is the ‘Death and the Miser’, now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington. The two panels together would have represented the two extremes of the prodigal, who is condemned, and the miser, who is caricatured.

Sebastian Brant’s book The Ship of Fools (Das Narrenschiff) is a book of satire published in 1494 in Basel, Switzerland. Brant was a conservative German theologian.

In a prologue, 112 brief satires, and an epilogue, all illustrated with woodcuts, the book includes the first commissioned work by Dürer, a great Renaissance artist and engraver. Much of the work was critical of the state of the Church of the Church at the time. Brant tackles the weaknesses and vices of his time, and creates the fictional Saint Grobian, who becomes the patron saint of vulgar and coarse people.

The Ship of Fools was inspired by a frequent motif in mediaeval art and literature, particularly in religious satire, due to a pun on the Latin word navis, which means both a boat and the nave of a church.

The theme of foolishness is a frequent literary device for criticism before the Reformation to criticism. Examples are provided by Erasmus, in his In Praise of Folly, by Martin Luther in his Address to the Christian Nobility, and by the role of court jesters or fools. By writing in the voice of the fool, Brant found an acceptable literary device for his criticism of the Church. Dürer carved many of the woodcuts for the first edition, and the book found immediate popularity. However, it is still debated whether The Ship of Fools is a humanist work or just a late example of this mediaeval genre.

More recently Ship of Fools has been adapted as the name of a satirical, church-related website that has its roots in a student print magazine, Ship of Fools, first launched in 1977. The print magazine, but folded in 1983 after ten issues. It was revived again on April Fools’ Day 1998 as a website, and has quickly grown into an online community as well as a webzine.

“We’re here for people who prefer their religion disorganised,” according to Simon Jenkins, editor and designer of the website. “Our aim is to help Christians be self-critical and honest about the failings of Christianity, as we believe honesty can only strengthen faith.”

Ship of Fools says it attracts more than 150,000 visitors a month accessing more than 2.5 million pages. Ship of Fools describes itself as iconoclastic and debunking but also committed to the ultimate value of faith, and aims to attract readers more interested in searching questions than simplistic answers.

The co-editor of Ship of Fools is Stephen Goddard, who met Simon Jenkins at theological college in London in the late 1970s. “As committed Christians ourselves, we can’t help laughing at the crazy things that go wrong with the church, and we’re also drawn to those questions which take us beyond easy believing. In the end, we want to make sense of the Christian faith in today’s complex world.”

Regular features include the Mystery Worshipper, the Caption Competition, and Gadgets for God. Ship of Fools has also run a number of projects, including The Ark, an online game-show, and Church of Fools, an early experiment in online 3D church. The Laugh Judgment, investigating into funny and offensive religious jokes, prompted the journalist Julie Burchill to say: “If one must choose a modern symbol of what is so good about Britain, I would choose Ship of Fools.”

Tomorrow:Christ in Glory’ by Graham Sutherland, tapestry in Coventry Cathedral.

1 comment:

Gerard said...

I like this. Especially as I vaguely remember a ponderous (and pompous) Richard Dimbleby conducting us around that Swiss spaghetti plantation.

Looking forward to hearing you speak in Achill, at the Böll weekend.
Gerard from Germany