Representations of Folly in the Works of Bruegel, Bosch, and Durer, Essay Example

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Essay

According to Svetlana Alpers, the concept of folly, perhaps best described as a condition or quality of acting foolish without good sense or propriety or some type of absurd behavior that results in a ruinous outcome, is very closely linked to what she calls a “comic mode,” composed of two specific traits or “strains”–first, “humanist wit” as found in Erasmus’ Praise of Folly or comedy based on humanist thought in relation to the absurdity of the Church and its teachings, and the “Medieval folk carnival tradition” of the 16th century.

Alpers adds that painters like Sebastian Bruegel considered folly as “not something to be scourged, but as the human condition” (174), meaning that folly, at least in the eyes of the peasantry, was part of human nature and should be encouraged as a type of catharsis or a way to release pent-up emotions and to forget for a short period of time all of their problems associated with being a member of the lower classes in 16th century Northern Europe.

In addition, Alpers recognizes this “comic mode” as a rather “satisfactory explanation for the rise of secular, realistic, low-life art. . . born of comic influences” (176), such as found in three specific paintings of the Northern Renaissance period–Pieter Bruegel’s Peasant Dance, Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, and Albrecht Durer’s woodcut The Fool’s Musical Offering, published in Brandts’ The Ship of Fools in 1493.

As perhaps one of the greatest Flemish painters of his day, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525 to 1569) rendered as number of paintings that for the most part depict the activities of human beings set within a landscape of contrasts. In one of his series of paintings, Bruegel depicts human beings amid the various seasons of the year and in many instances shows peasants or people of the lower social classes having what we now refer to as a “good time” replete with drink, song, and much revelry. For example, in Peasant Dance, painted in 1568, Bruegel depicts ordinary country folk enjoying themselves in an autumn environment, boisterously singing and dancing, whirling with the music, and certainly building up a sweat because of all the action. One can almost hear and feel the sound of many feet stomping on the ground to the wild rhythms of the bagpipes, due to Bruegel’s ability to express reality on the canvas as if seeing the action through the lens of a camera.

As to the presence of folly in Peasant Dance, the figures seated at the table on the left side of the canvas are obviously enjoying themselves with conversation and much drink; behind these figures, one can see a man and a woman kissing which during the 16th century was considered as risqué behavior in public. There is also the figure of a man offering a jug of wine to the bagpiper as perhaps a kind of reward for his musical talent. In many ways, these activities are closely aligned with Sebastian Brandt’s observation that the foundation of folly are “sins and vices” (The Ship of Fools), such as kissing in public and public drunkenness.

At the extreme end of the artistic spectrum, we find Hieronymus Bosch’s extravagant and decadent The Garden of Earthly Delights, a triptych or three-paneled painting rendered between 1490 and 1510. Although many art historians have attempted over the years to interpret this otherworldly painting, it is quite obvious that it is replete with folly or what Brandt refers to as being filled with “contemptible and loathsome” fools caught up in the trappings of vice and sin. The left panel shows the birth of Eve in the Garden of Eden, but she is not represented as the mother of mankind; rather, she is a seductress of not only Adam but also the viewer.

Evil is everywhere with the fountain of life surrounded by ravens, the traditional symbols of death and decay, and the mysterious owl hiding in the hole in the fountain’s center that symbolizes witchcraft and demonology. Within the central panel, nude figures of men and women can be seen, swarming amid a landscape of debauchery, vice, and great sinning. As an artist, Bosch has inserted within this painting many erotic symbols that refer to temptation and sexual pleasure, no doubt as a reference to original sin in the Garden of Eden.

Some of these erotic symbols are clearly meant to disgust the viewer, especially if viewed by a person with scruples and a solid moral foundation living during the 16th century. For example, the pieces of fruit might represent sexual pleasure, while the eggs might symbolize the sexual union between a man and a woman. In the right panel called “Hell,” one can see a lute and a harp that signifies wild and debauched music in Hell. There are also other figures that represent great folly, such as the figure of a man crucified inside the strings of the harp, a gambler nailed to his own table, and the figure of a man in the extreme lower right corner apparently fornicating with a pig.

Certainly, as Sebastian Brandt notes in The Ship of Fools, all of the characters in this painting are exhibiting extreme forms of sin and vice, and perhaps in the mind of Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights was meant to serve as a reminder that human beings, regardless of their social status, are prone to sinning and folly, all set amid Alper’s “comic mode” of humanist wit and the Medieval folk carnival tradition. After all, many of the figures in this painting are clearly enjoying themselves, while others suffer in torment.

Lastly, we have Albrecht Durer’s The Fool’s Musical Offering, part of a series of woodcuts found within the pages of Brandt’s The Ship of Fools. As an extremely talented and skilled engraver, Durer also spent much of his time writing treatises or studies on a wide range of subjects, such as painting in perspective and how to achieve the ideal of human proportion in a painted figure. Durer also was fascinated with the social environment of Italy during the Italian Renaissance and through his skilled application of the tools used for engraving and making woodcuts, Durer became an expert in depicting the human figure. However, Durer also enjoyed manipulating the environment and creating human figures that at first glance appear somewhat out of proportion or standing or sitting in a comic pose.

In The Fool’s Musical Offering, we find many splendid examples of folly and foolishness. For example, the group of musicians on the right side of the print are dressed up as fools wearing conical hats with bells, much like the traditional fool of the court or the court jester. Also, the woman in the window is naked, for we can see her naked breasts. Obviously, she finds displeasure in what the musicians are playing, for she is pouring something into the street below, quite possibly her own bedpan full of urine.

Much like Bruegel’s Peasant Dance and Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, this engraving by Durer exhibits Alper’s “comic mode” via the woman pouring a foul substance onto the musicians below her window and the Medieval folk carnival tradition via the musicians dressed as fools attempting to serenade someone who probably just wants them to go away. Although these artistic representations of folly date back to the 16th century, Bruegel, Bosch, and Durer were attempting to express Alper’s “comic mode” via showing peasants and members of the lower classes basically enjoying themselves with the help of comedic relief while acting like fools in public and living in a society that did not tolerate diversions from Church sanctioned behaviors, such as the woman in the window in Durer’s engraving letting all of the world see her naked breasts.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Alpers, Svetlana. “Bruegel’s Festive Peasants.” Simiolus 6 (1972-73): 163-76.

Brandt, Sebastian. The Ship of Fools. Vol. 1. Project Gutenberg. 2006. Web. 3 May 2012.

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