This short paper describes and reflects on an intriguing German engraving (c. 1600) by an unknown artist, which features a Large Head of a Jester and an inscription beneath.
Wearing a traditional jester’s cap, complete with coxcomb and bells, and various badges, what makes the image stand out is the curious lip-biting stance of the fool, along with an odd expression which could convey concern or disdain. The grimace is unusual among fool depictions and the authors of the paper ask pertinent questions about what it might mean.
‘Biting your lip’ can mean to keep quiet and the inscription asks us to ‘be silent and leave me in peace’ (Drumb schweig und lasz mich gehen). He is also an odd mix of kempt and unkempt, having a neatly trimmed moustache and eyebrows and a rough looking beard.
The print falls into a class of European medieval and Renaissance depictions in which a specific number of fools (or other people with animals or symbols) is given which exceeds the number shown on the image; the suggestion may be that the viewer completes the number. In this engraving, the text underneath mentions seven, which along with two or three is a commonly featured number in these one-more-than-shown device. Interestingly, this particular image doesn’t feature any other jesters, so there is a compound contradiction concerning that mysterious ‘seven’. The authors moot the possibility that the solution lies in the six warts or bumps featured on the fool’s nose, and again on his chin.
The paper gives other examples of this type, to which I would add the stone wall carving in the Town Hall of Nördlingen in Germany, known as a Narrenspiegel, a stone-carved ‘fool mirror’. A fool is looking at you, the viewer, and underneath it says ‘Nun sind unser zwey’ (‘Now we are two’), making the fool appear to be but a reflection of you, the foolish viewer.
A similar example of this are-you-the-missing-fool game can be seen in what appears to be a portrait of two historical jesters, Muckle John and Tom Derry, in an early 17th century painting entitled We Three Loggerheads. It features two fools and a wooden marotte, and theoretically the marotte may be the third ‘loggerhead’, but then again it could be you, the viewer. We will feature this splendid double jester portrait in the coming weeks.
The mirror aspect of these you-are-a-fool-too images may also be reflected in the Large Head of a Jester in the sense that his eyes show two windows in the background, with glass being common to both windows and mirrors (‘looking-glasses’).
As far as I know, this is the only paper concerning this unusual fool image, and it poses good questions and possible answers to some of the engraving’s contradictions and mystique.
IMAGE CREDIT: Large Head of a Jester (c. 1600), anon. German, engraving; copyright 2011, Art Gallery of Ontario, Gift of the Trier-Fodor Foundation, 1985; Google Art Project; size: 31.2 x 40cm
Narrenspiegel, stone carving of a fool at the Town Hall, Nördlingen, Germany
We Three Loggerheads (early 17th century), Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, oil on panel
Davies, Gregory, and Alison Stewart, ‘Head of a Jester’, Print Quarterly, 19:2 (2002), pp. 170–74.
Jongh, Eddy de, and Ger Luijten, Mirror of Everyday Life: Genreprints in the Netherlands 1550-1700 (Amsterdam & Ghent: Rijksmuseum & Snoeck-Ducaju & Zoon, 1997), pp. 22-23; figs. 46, 47, 48, 49, 50.
O’Connell, Sheila, The Popular Print in England 1550-1850 (London: British Museum Press, 1999), pp. 54, 122-23 and 233.