The last in this series of paintings (for now, I keep stumbling across new ones) bears a striking resemblance to our mysterious Moe No. 4. This one, too, I found on an auction site. Said to be the work of the Master of 1537, who worked in Mechelen and whose name comes from having had a panel dated to 1537 attributed to him, this artist has in turn been identified as Frans Verbeeck (1510-70), and the painting dated to around 1550, making it later than some of the others we’ve featured.
I call him the ‘merry fool’ as he appears more innocently cheery than the slightly scary Moe No. 2 in our series. But we see the same props – glasses tucked into his jacket; the marotte in the background, the ass-ear-coxcomb cap and, of course, the peeping through fingers.
The peeping-through-fingers references a proverb meaning something like the English ‘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? That said, his fingers seem more open than some of the other iterations of this trope, so perhaps he’s turning a slightly less ‘blind eye’ to our sins, or is merely indulging them more openly?
In this as in 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’.
Source: Painting of a jester (c. 1550), oil on wood, by the Master of 1537 (Frans Verbeeck?), formerly attributed to Quentin Massys (1466–1530), private collection, previously on loan to the Musée départemental de Flandre in Cassel, whereabouts now unknown.
NOTE: According to the background text appearing on the auction house website, ‘Dr. Jaco Rutgers concludes in his academic study (25 June 2019) that the Master of 1537 is identical to Frans Verbeeck’.
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 images, rather than making specific references to them.