CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Figures of the Fool

Exhibition: 16 October 2024 - 3 February 2025

The fascinating figure of the fool, an integral part of medieval visual culture, has been studied in terms of social and cultural history but rarely from the perspective of art history, even though the idea of madness inspired and stimulated literary and artistic creativity from the thirteenth to the mid-sixteenth century.

This ambitious, thought-provoking exhibition will approach the typically medieval figure of the fool through its imagery. Over 300 works of art – sculptures, artifacts (ivories, boxes, small bronzes), medals, illuminations, drawings, prints, panel paintings and tapestries – will be displayed according to period and theme.

Medieval art is essentially religious in the popular imagination, but the Middle Ages also gave rise to the subversive figure of the fool. Although rooted in religion, it pervaded the secular world and, by the late medieval period, had become an integral part of urban social life.

In medieval times, the definition of the fool was derived from the Scriptures, particularly the first verse of Psalm 52: ‘Dixit insipiens…’ (The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God’). Madness was primarily seen as ignorance and an absence of love for God, but there were religious fanatics too, such as Saint Francis. So in the thirteenth century, the idea of madness was inextricably linked to love and its measure or excess in the spiritual, then the earthly realm.

Jheronimus Bosch (ca. 1450-1516), The Ship of Fools (detail), ca. 1500-10
Musée du Louvre, Paris

The theme of the folly of love pervaded chivalric romances (such as those of Yvain, Perceval, Lancelot and Tristan) and the numerous depictions of them, especially in illuminations and on ivories. Before long, the figure of the fool came between the lover and his lady, denouncing courtly values and emphasizing the lewd, even obscene, nature of human love.

The status of the fool shifted from mystical and symbolic to political and social: in the fourteenth century, the court jester became the institutionalized antithesis of royal wisdom and his ironic or critical observations gained acceptance. New imagery emerged portraying the fool with a distinctive costume: a bauble (mock scepter), a striped or ‘half and half’ outfit, a cap and bells.

In the fifteenth century, the figure of the fool gained immensely in importance and popularity at carnival celebrations and in folklore; his association with social criticism made him a vehicle for the most subversive ideas. He also played a role in the upheaval of the Reformation, when the fool was the ‘other’ (Catholic or Protestant). As can be seen in the art of Bosch and Bruegel, he was omnipresent in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance.

In the modern era, the figure of the institutional fool seems to have been gradually replaced in the courts of Europe by the dwarf or jester. From the mid-Enlightenment onwards, folly took its revenge by emerging in other, less controlled forms. The exhibition will end with a look at the nineteenth-century view of the Middle Ages through the lens of the theme of madness, but in the tragic, sometimes cruel light engendered by political and artistic revolutions.

The exhibition is curated by Elisabeth Antoine-König, Senior Curator in the Department of Decorative Arts, and Pierre-Yves Le Pogam, Senior Curator in the Department of Sculptures, Musée du Louvre.