The peeking through fingers stance is enigmatic, this we know. This version of it, apparently a pretty straightforward twin of the second in our series, if not a copy, is elusive. By chance I saw it on an online art mart.
It has now disappeared and I know of no other reference to it. It was listed as 16th century Dutch, which may be possible given the others we’ve seen, again oil on wood.
The only notable difference from the others is the addition of a bell to the already symbol-laden coxcomb-ass-ear cap.
The peeping-through-fingers alludes to a proverb which equates to English expressions such as ‘turning a blind eye’ or ‘looking the other way’. Cavalli-Björkman suggests it could mean to ‘avoid seeing things as they are, particularly if they are unpleasant’.
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’.
Pleased to add this one to the collection, particularly as it is probably now in private hands and off the radar. If anybody has any insights, do let me know.
Credit: ‘Laughing fool or jester’ (16th century), Dutch unknown artist; oil on wood; whereabouts unknown
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. 105–36.
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.