Here, the viewer is presented with an amalgam of traditional Dutch proverbs, all framed within the popular allegorical tale of the "Ship of Fools." The story, originating in Plato's Republic, tells of a ship hijacked from a meek captain by a group of deranged underlings. The ship drifts on a path to the unknown and without a skillful leader. The fable originally served as a cautionary warning towards blind allegiance to pure democracy, as well as a call to trust in specialized leadership. Bosch's illustration of the subject, now in the Musée du Louvre (fig. 1), serves as the artistic inspiration for the present work, which also employs Bosch's drawing of The Hell Ship (Vienna, Akademie der bildenden Künste, Kupferstichkabinett) as another point of departure. As in the current painting, the drawing includes the motif of an oversized man who carries the ship around his waist.
A number of Dutch proverbs are cleverly illustrated throughout this composition. Among the most prominent is the open eye set into the top of the sail, meant to represent the saying "Een oogje in het zeil houden" ("Keep an eye on the sail"), or "be aware of your surroundings." This specific motif may have been directly inspired by a detail from Pieter Bruegel the Elder's 1559 masterpiece The Netherlandish Proverbs, which subtly incorporates this same adage into the background of the composition.
1. A copy of the report is available upon request.
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