25 – THE OAR, THE SPADE, AND THE GIANT SPOON – PART 1

The Mat card corresponds well with the image of the pilgrim fool, invented by Marsilio Ficino (see episode 24). However, some details still need to be clarified. What does the animal that mauls the wanderer mean? Why does the fool carry a gigantic spoon over his shoulder? What does his bundle contain?

After the pilgrim fool’s first appearance in Ficino’s writings, this strange figure spread rapidly. During Ficino’s lifetime, he reappeared in Germany. In 1494, a humanist from Strasbourg named Sebastian Brant (1458-1521) published his Ship of Fools, a satirical book conceived as a catalog of human follies in which the world is compared with a ship loaded with fools of all sorts, which the author wittily portrays as he explains himself in his introduction:

The world lives on in darkest night
And men persist in sin most blind.
On streets or highways you can find
A pack of fools who vaunt their shame
And yet prefer to shun the name.
Thus have I thought this was the time
To launch a ship of fools in rhyme
A galley, bark, skiff, ketch or yawl
– But one ship wouldn’t hold them all;
Perhaps we’ll add sleigh, wagon, cart,
For fools rush in from every part.
They swarm like bees to start the trip,
Go swimming out to meet the ship,
For each would be the first on board,
Embarking on his own accord.
And here I’ve pictured every dolt.[1]

In the first edition, the text, in German, was illustrated with wood engravings, among which the figure of the pilgrim fool appears several times.

Gnad-Her-Meister (attr.), illustration from Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools, 1494.

Moreover, Death and Folly also appear together, as if Arcana 13 and the Mat finally reunited in a single image.

Haintz-Nar-Meister (attr.), illustration from Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools, 1494.

Ficino’s images most likely inspired Brant’s Ship of Fools. Some might doubt the possibility that Ficino’s works could echo so far away from Florence at that time.

In reality, the early influence of Plato’s translator in Germany has been documented thoroughly. It even seems possible to retrace rather precisely the connections that allowed for the images’ transmission. The German humanist Johannes Reuchlin (1455-1522) met Ficino in 1482 while traveling in Italy. The two men maintained a relationship, and Reuchlin’s correspondence tells us that he asked for Ficino’s publications to be sent to him. Two letters in particular, dated 1491 and 1492, reveal that Reuchlin requested a copy of Ficino’s Platonic Theology.[2] Reuchlin was, as early as 1475, Sebastian Brant’s Greek teacher at the University of Basel. [3] They became friends, and this friendship lasted throughout their lives.[4] Thus, Ficino’s Platonic Theology might have been transmitted to Brant through Reuchlin’s intermediary and, with it, the image of the pilgrim fool. The vignette showing Death pursuing the pilgrim even suggests that not only Ficino’s writings, but also Tarot of Marseille cards, were sent to Reuchlin, given the striking similarity between this image and the Arcana 13 and Mat cards.

The pilgrim fool reappears a few years later, farther North in the Duchy of Brabant, in two of the Flemish painter Hieronymus Bosch’s works. One is a tondo kept in Rotterdam, The Wayfarer, dated between 1500 and 1510, and the other is the famous Haywayn triptych, exhibited today at the Prado Museum in Madrid and dated between 1510 and 1515. Both compositions feature the figure of a wayfarer, presenting several similarities with the Tarot of Marseille’s Mat card.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Wayfarer, c. 1500-1510 (Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam).

Hieronymus Bosch, The Wayfarer, closed panels of the Haywayn triptych, c. 1500-1510 (Prado Museum, Madrid).

Just like the Mat’s pilgrim, both wayfarers hold a walking stick in their right hands,  forming an acute angle with respect to the ground; they both stand in a position like the pilgrim’s, with the front foot flat on the ground and the other heel lifted. Just like the pilgrim fool, both wayfarers are being followed by a menacing animal, and just like him, they wear ragged clothes and carry a backpack, along with a utensil that resembles a long spoon. However, one of the Mat’s attributes does not belong to the wayfarers: his jester’s attire. As noted in Episode 24, this feature denotes the pilgrim’s foolishness. Are Bosch’s wayfarers spared from insanity?

In reality, the context in which Bosch’s wayfarers appear should be considered: Both are elements of two triptychs. The analysis of the boards’ wood allowed researchers to demonstrate that Rotterdam’s Wayfarer originally was displayed on the outer panels of a triptych, which were subsequently detached and joined together. The inner panels were identified as three fragments dispersed in different museums around the world. Two of them quite opportunely provide the Mat’s characteristics that do not appear in the tondo itself.

The inner left panel features a Ship of Fools, obviously inspired by Sebastian Brant — prominently featuring a jester holding a marotte.

Hieronymus Bosch, Ship of Fools, ca. 1500-1510 (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

The other passengers on the ship, although not wearing jester attire, nonetheless obviously appear to be affected by craziness. The right inner panel, now at the National Gallery of Arts in Washington, presents a Death and the Miser, in which Death is depicted as a skeleton.

Hieronymus Bosch, Death and the Miser, ca. 1500-1510 (National Gallery of Arts, Washington)

Thus, the triptych of the Rotterdam Wayfarer featured the three interrelated themes combined in the Mat card’s figure: exile, foolishness, and death.

Likewise, the Prado triptych’s panels open into a complex panorama, unfolding the foolish procession of humanity walking toward death.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Haywayn, ca. 1500-1510 (Prado Museum, Madrid)

This painting also exposes the themes underlying Ficino’s image of the pilgrim fool. The inner left panel presents the origin of human exile. At the top, God the Father, enveloped in light, dominates a multitude of fallen angels who cascade toward earth like a swarm of insects. Lower, lies the Genesis Creation narrative – birth of Eve, discovery of the Tree of Knowledge, temptation, and expulsion from the Garden of Eden – which also illustrates the theme of man’s separation from his original homeland. The sequence ends with the figures of Adam and Eve chased away from Paradise while trying to hide their now-shameful nudity.

The emblematic couple reappears in the central panel, now nobly dressed in fine clothes, enjoying musical entertainment while sitting atop a large wagon of hay. Behind them, the tree of temptation seems to have followed them onto the vehicle. In the foliage, a couple of kissing peasants seemingly allude to physical pleasure, masked by the apparent courtliness of the exchange between the two noble youths. Hidden behind the tree, a voyeur illustrates the sin of envy. On both sides of this group, an angel and a demon suggest two possible paths. The angel looks up into the sky toward Jesus the Son, who dominates the scene. The demon, on the other hand, points his trumpet under him toward the human tide that swarms around the wagon. The vehicle itself is moving, but going neither up nor down. It seems to be crossing the frame from left to right, as if the original couple, chased away from Paradise, were pursuing their own path, distancing themselves even farther from the Father. The mob follows the movement in a progression toward foolishness and bestiality. Behind the wagon, the procession stretches, at first in a solemn mode, with an emperor, a Pope, and a king riding horses, followed by a group of well-dressed people quietly moving forward. In the foreground, however, the crowd is much more lively. A group is having a dispute, while two men are fighting, one of them disabled and brandishing his crutch while his opponent menaces him with a knife. Going forward, the progression of the wagon seems to provoke scenes of furious frenzy, as human waves assault it, equipped with ladders, pitchforks, and gaffs, struggling to access its content, trying to pull hay off the wagon. What does this all represent? It is likely an image of the earthly riches that humans pursue in vain. Being the same color as gold, this substance of little value excites humans’ cupidity and leads them to their fall. Ahead of the wagon, attached to the beam, clawed chimeras and horned demons take the vehicle away with its load, as the crowd follows it, regardless of rank or dignity, toward the right panel of the triptych.

There, humanity’s earthly journey ends. It is a gloomy world filled with frightening demons, i.e., hell. In that place, returned to their original nudity, humans are treated like butcher’s meat and fed to ferocious beasts, while creatures born in nightmares are busy building a tower, probably hoping to reach the sky, but the sky, veiled and reddish, leaves no space for a sunny spell. Should humanity resign to making this fateful journey, this mad dash toward a darkness without escape?

Let us close the triptych’s panels. With his head turned behind him, the wayfarer proceeds without looking toward wherever he is heading. In the landscape behind him, two large trees stand out, possibly prefiguring the trees of temptation featured in the inner panels. Under one of them, a scene depicting peasants dancing evokes the group at the top of the hay stack. Under the other, a man, tied to the tree, is robbed of his riches by a gang of brigands, a probable allusion to humans struggling around the hay stack. The wayfarer turns his back to both temptations, free from the quest for material goods, as well as from amorous desire. Is there a remaining outcome? Neither left nor right, it should probably be sought upward, right over his head. There, on top of a hill, bathed in golden light – an impalpable gold this time – sits a gallows, an instrument of ordeal, with a ladder. This is how the sky can be reached. Through death, man earns salvation in God, as Jesus indicated through his agony on the Cross.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Wayfarer, detail, closed panels of the Haywayn triptych, c. 1500-1510 (Prado Museum, Madrid).

A pentimento seems to confirm this reading. In the first sketch of the painting, revealed by infrared photography, there was a cross by the side of the road, just behind the wooden gate. The painter probably painted over it because it would have rendered the interpretation of the work too obvious, and he wished to keep it mysterious.

The erased Cross behind the wooden gate (infrared photography)

Thus, it seems clear that Bosch’s two Wayfarer paintings expose the same ideas as Ficino’s figure of the pilgrim fool and also share many similarities with the Mat card in the Tarot of Marseille. In the next parts of this episode, we will analyze similarities between the Wayfarer paintings and the Mat to understand the specificities of the Mat that could not be elucidated from Ficino’s writings alone.

To be continued in part two.

[1] Sebastian Brant, Ship of Fools, translated by William Gillis, London, Folio Society, 1971, p. 3.

[2] Paul Oskar Kristeller, Supplementum Ficinianum, Florence, Olschki, 1937, Vol. ii, p. 306.

[3] Edwyn H. Zeydel, “Johann Reuchlin and Sebastian Brant: A Study in Early German Humanism,” Studies in Philology, 67/2 (1970), pp. 117-138, here 121.

[4] Ibidem, pp. 125-126.

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