Continued from part two.

The luggage in Bosch’s Wayfarers (left and center) and in the Mat card (right).

Like the pilgrim fool, the two wayfarers hold their luggage on their backs, even though the pilgrim contents himself with a bundle. The wayfarers, however, are laden with a more sophisticated wicker pannier held with a strap.

Bosch’s two Wayfarer paintings are the outer panels of two triptychs, illustrating the themes of sin and vice (cupidity and envy in the central panel of the Haywayn triptych; original sin in the inner left panel of the same triptych; miserliness in Death and the Miser; greed in the Ship of Fools). In this context, a key to understanding the presence of baggage on the wayfarers’ backs can be found in a commentary written by Cristoforo Landino, Ficino’s faithful friend, in his edition of Horace’s Complete Works, published in 1482. In one of his Satires, Horace evoked the foolishness of humans with these words:

Who calls me mad, now hears as much in turn;
And he, that taxes me, perchance may learn,
To his own grosser faults no longer blind,
To mark the wallet pendent from behind.[1]

In his commentary, Landino considers that the “wallet pendent from behind” is a reference to a famous Aesop fable:

Indeed, Aesop shows a man whose burden is a satchel with two pouches: the pouch that hangs in the back is the one in which we hide our vices; the other, which hangs on our chest, is the one in which we keep an eye on the vices of other people. The image is cleverly built, because as much as we are unable to see our own vices, it is also true that we cannot see what hangs in our back.[2]

It is likely that on the Mat card, as with Bosch’s two Wayfarer paintings, the luggage carried ostensibly in the back is an allusion to this fable. According to Christian doctrine, every man, being a sinner, has a load of sins to carry. Only he who recognizes them frees himself from them. Thus, the content of the backpacks and bundle is, in all likelihood, the bearer’s sins.

On the right side of the wicker panniers of Bosch’s two Wayfarer paintings is a long spoon suspended on a string. A similar utensil also appears on the Mat card from the Tarot of Marseille, the stick to which the bundle is suspended having an end shaped in the form of a spatula.

At the end of Chapter VII of Book XIV of his Platonic Theology, after Ficino sketches the figure of the pilgrim fool, he evokes those who, unlike most people, are sometimes able to realize that what they perceive from the world is as devoid of reality as a dream:

Whoever feels like this amid dreamers resembles Tiresias among the dead as Homer describes him: “Alone,” he says, “Tiresias knew: all the rest flutter about like shadows, or rather they are fluttering shadows.”[3]

This short sentence refers to the episode of the Odyssey in which Homer reveals Odysseus’ final mission. The quotation is taken from Circe’s answer to Odysseus, who asked her to let him return to his homeland. The sorceress, resigning herself to the hero’s departure, sends him to the kingdom of death to meet the seer Tiresias, who can tell him whether he will ever return home. Odysseus enters the Underworld, where Tiresias reveals to him that he will return to his homeland, but that he first must ease Poseidon’s wrath with sacrifices:

[…] then do thou go forth, taking a shapely oar, until thou comest to men that know naught of the sea and eat not of food mingled with salt, aye, and they know naught of ships with purple cheeks, or of shapely oars that are as wings unto ships. And I will tell thee a sign right manifest, which will not escape thee. When a peasant, on meeting thee, shall ask you why thou hast a winnowing-fan on thy stout shoulder, then do thou fix in the earth thy shapely oar and make goodly offerings to lord Poseidon—a ram, and a bull, and a boar that mates with sows—and depart for thy home and offer sacred hecatombs to the immortal gods who hold broad heaven, to each one in due order. And death shall come to thee thyself far from the sea, a death so gentle, that shall lay thee low when thou art overcome with sleek old age, and thy people shall dwell in prosperity around thee.[4]

Thus, Odysseus needs to get back on course to make a sacrifice to Poseidon. So, his final journey appears really – not only metaphorically, through a biased interpretation – a journey toward divinity. Death will occur at the end of this progression – a gentle death presenting itself as a liberation.

Moreover, the situation described by Homer is full of humor. Odysseus must travel inland with his oar on his shoulder – i.e., a long object with a spatula shape at the end. The hero should walk until he arrives at a place where people do not know the sea, presumably so that Poseidon, god of the sea, could be honored in a place where he is still unknown. How will Odysseus know that he has gone far enough from the coast? When someone asks him why he is carrying a winnowing-fan on his shoulder, i.e., when he meets people ignorant of the sea who mistake an oar for a winnowing-fan, an agricultural instrument that resembles a spade, with a long handle and a spatula-shaped ending used for threshing to separate the chaff from the grain.

Likewise, on the Mat card, the stick holding the pilgrim’s bundle is probably not a gigantic spoon, but the Homeric oar. Similarly, the utensils fixed to the wayfarers’ backpacks, right behind their shoulders, are probably faint and diminished echoes of the same navigating instrument.

Bosch’s Ship of Fools panel, which was part of the same triptych as the Rotterdam Wayfarer, provides us with a supplementary clue. One of the embarked passengers seems busy steering the ship with an instrument that has a long handle with a spatula-shaped end, which has the aspect of a winnowing-fan, rather than that of a proper oar. The Homeric schema is inverted: Instead of an oar taken for a winnowing-fan, we have a winnowing-fan used as an oar. Everything appears inverted in a world of fools. Thus, in the Mat and Wayfarer paintings, after these characters’ lives of vagrancy on earth, they proceed with a firm step toward the place of the last sacrifice, ready to fix their oars in the ground to honor God. Conversely, the passenger of the ship who is rowing, mouth wide open in front of cheese suspended at the end of a rope, with hallucinated eyes, seems to be steering with the winnowing-fan without knowing to where he is heading.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Ship of Fools (detail).

[1] Horace, Satires, II, 3, translation by Francis Howes, London, Pickering, 1845, p. 112.

[2] Christophori Landini Florentini in Q. H. Horatii Flacci Libros Omnes, Florence, Antonio Miscomini, 1482, f. CCXIv.

[3] Marsilio Ficino, Platonic Theology, Vol. 4, translated by Michael J. B. Allen, Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press, 2004, p. 279. Translation slightly modified.

[4] Homer, Odyssey, 11, 120, translated by A. T. Murray. Translation slightly modified.

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