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Famous Painting Pictures Human Folly

I imagine you're familiar with the phrase "ship of fools." It was a common medieval motif used in literature and art, especially religious satire. One such satire is Hieronymus Bosch's famous oil painting by the same name, which now hangs in the Louvre in Paris. [See an image of "Ship of Fools."] This marvelous work, which is filled with symbolism, shows ten people aboard a small vessel and two overboard swimming around it. It is a ship without a pilot (captain), and everyone onboard is too busy drinking, feasting, flirting, and singing to know where on earth the waves are pushing them.

They are fools because they are enjoying all the sensual pleasures of this world without knowing where it all leads. Atop the mast hangs a bunch of dangling carrots and a man is climbing up to reach them. Yet above the carrots we find a small but significant detail: a human skull. This is the thirteenth head in the painting, unlucky in every imaginable way. The idea is that these twelve fools, who think all is perfect, are sailing right to their demise. The only pilot on board, the only figure leading the way, is death.

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