Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450 – 1516) was one of the most original artists of the Dutch Renaissance, who was celebrated for his highly imaginative and eccentric imagery. A stern moralist, he had no illusions about the capriciousness of human nature. This depiction of the Ship of Fools, a group of morally deprived people who are aimlessly adrift in the sea of life, cynically illustrates the evils of debauchery and decadence.
The present engraving by Pieter van der Heyden, which according to an inscription was executed after a design by Bosch, shows a small boat filled with seven people, floating on the sea close to shore. Two women and four men appear to be drunk and singing. The vessel is steered by a skinny man, who carries a lute on his back; his right hand is holding a pair of cherries. A pitcher is standing on the musician’s head, atop some branches. Another pitcher is hanging from the side of the boat. In the foreground we see a beach with sea birds and on the horizon to the left a skyline of a coastal town. Gulls circle the boat in the sky, some are flying toward the steersman’s head.
The vessel carries the name Die blau schuÿte (The blue boat), which apparently is a reference to the Guild of the Blue Boat, a mock guild related to Carnival festivities in the Low Countries.
An inscription in the lower left corner reads: Hieronÿmus – Bos – Inuentor, indicating that the engraving was made after a creation by Hieronymus Bosch. The monogram PAME, to the right, refers to the engraver Pieter van der Heyden, whose name in Latin is Petrus a Merica (merica = Dutch ‘heide’, heath in English). The inscription in the lower right corner Cock – excudebat – 1559 – cum gratia et privilegio refers to Hieronymus Cock, who published the work in 1559.
Below the image a poem reads:
Daer platbroeck speelman is en stierman in de bane
Daer sien hem de voghelen voer eenen huÿben ane
En al tiert sijn gheselscap datse moghen sweeten
Het sullen de sanghers in de blau schuÿte heeten
Where Flatpants is minstrel and steersman of the journey
There the birds think he is an owl
And although his companions yell until they sweat
They will be called the singers in the blue boat.
The present print is apparently related to Hieronymus Bosch’s famous oil painting Ship of Fools, which is now owned by the Louvre in Paris. Bosch’s painting is a fragment of an altarpiece, that was later cut into several parts. The Ship of Fools is the top part of the right altar wing, the bottom third of the panel, known as The Allegory of Gluttony, belongs to the Yale University Art Gallery today.
Sebastian Brant’s famous satirical poem Das Narrenschiff likely served as inspiration to both Bosch’s painting and the present print. Published in 1494 by Johann Bergmann von Olpe in Basel, Das Narrenschiff was the most successful German-language book before the Reformation. It tells the story of more than 100 fools on a ship’s journey to the fictional country of Narragonia (‘the realm of fools’), holding up a critical mirror to the world by entertainingly describing their vices and eccentricities. The work was translated into Latin in 1497 and circulated throughout Europe through further translations into various languages.