The ‘Laughing Jester’ by an unknown Dutch artist is generally dated to around 1520. This work, which is the front cover illustration of the Fools Are Everywhere book, is one of several paintings featuring a jester in this enigmatic stance – peeping through his fingers – which we will be highlighting in the coming weeks in an endeavour to better understand them as a group.
A first exploration of this theme is a paper by Görel Cavalli-Björkman which presents a few of them; having found other examples, and feeling that some questions remain unanswered, this is an attempt to build on her work.
This example presents a jester in the iconic costume commonly attributed to them: parti-coloured clothing in striking combinations and colours, here green, red and yellow, and the cap complete with ass ears and coxcomb, both signalling the fool.
Cavalli-Björkman mentions the colours of the clothing:
During the Middle Ages yellow – the colour of saffron – had negative associations. Saffron could have a bad effect on the nervous system. It could provoke laughter and even folly. Green was the colour of disgrace.
He also has the jester’s ‘marotte’, the fool-stick topped with a small jester’s head – allowing the jester to engage in a conversation with another fool and even to address mockery to this mirror-fool that might be intended for other people in the room.
The peeping-through-fingers is intriguing. Cavalli-Björkman suggests it could mean to ‘avoid seeing things as they are, particularly if they are unpleasant’, something like ‘turning a blind eye’. She mentions a saying alluded to in Pieter Bruegel’s painting The Flemish Proverbs:
‘Die niet dor de vinger ziet, dient in de wereld niet’
(‘He who never looks through his fingers at aught, will never in the world be sought’) .
This could suggest something like ‘You’ll never get ahead if you don’t look the other way now and then’. Is the fool mocking us for turning a blind eye to wickedness, or conniving with us, or is he a fool for doing so himself?
In this and similar paintings and prints, he holds a pair of spectacles half tucked into his jacket. Cavalli-Björkman mentions a German proverb, ‘To buy someone some glasses’ (‘Jemanden eine Brille kaufen’), which means to deceive or fool somebody. One commentary moots the possibility that the association with deception could be due to the fact that ‘making glasses at the time was a technical challenge, causing their quality to vary greatly – for this reason, their makers were sometimes considered charlatans.’
Kenneth Craig suggests ‘We would not be far wrong to suspect by their presence another comment on the lack of perspicacity in our Fools. Indeed, a parallel tradition in the sixteenth century views spectacles as an ironic attribute of those who cannot or will not see the truth.’
He provides a convincing example of this interpretation in a woodcut by Erhard Schoen, ‘Owl avoiding daylight’ (1540), in which an owl, ‘that bird of darkness and evil who hides from the daylight’, is depicted with spectacles, the sun and a lit candle and the inscription of another German (and Dutch) proverb:
‘Was hilfft mich sün liche oder prill / Weyl ich doch selbs nicht sehen will.’
(‘What use are sun, candle or spectacles to me / Since I do not myself have the will to see’.)
It seems reasonable to conclude that the glasses reinforce the ‘turning of a blind eye’ inherent in the peeking-through-fingers gesture, either signifying a deliberate pulling of the wool over our eyes, and / or a wilful self-deception, looking the other way, as it were.
Another possibility, mooted in an essay on the symbolism of glasses in art, is that they could signal the ‘folly of the search for knowledge in the face of inevitable and unpredictable death’. It’s an interesting perspective to be kept in mind, pending a primary source to illustrate it.
One aspect not mentioned by any of these commentators is the fact that the fool isn’t wearing the glasses, which might help him see more clearly if he actually used them, again underpinning the idea of ‘turning a blind eye’.
To be continued… with other paintings in the group to follow, starting with a remarkably similar jester.
Credit: ‘Laughing Jester’ (c. 1520), Dutch; Nationalmuseum Stockholm, Stockholm; oil on wood; 47 x 37cm
Amoako, Aida, ‘Spectacular vision: the symbolism of glasses in art’, ArtUK.org, 22 July 2020.
Cavalli-Björkman, Görel, ‘The Laughing Jester’, Nationalmuseum Bulletin, Stockholm, 9:2 (1985), pp. 100-09.
Craig, Kenneth, ‘Proverb’s Progress: a Fool Looking Through His Fingers’, in The Great Emporium, The Low countries as a Cultural Crossroad in the Renaissance and the Eighteenth Century (Amsterdam 1992), pp. 119-20 and fig. 7.
Friedländer, Max J., “Das Bildnis eines Narren von dem Meister des Angerer-Portrats,” Pantheon, 10 (1932), pp. 232–33, ill.
Mellinkoff, Ruth, Outcasts: Signs of Otherness in Northern European Art of the Late Middle Ages, 2 vols (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993) – this magnum opus touches on many elements in this and related paintings, rather than making specific references to them.