Fool’s Gold


ship of fools 2

Albrecht Durer, title page from Sebastian Brant’s Narranschiff, 1494

Some 15 years ago, Brian Williams created a Tarot based on humanist Sebastian Brant’s illustrated tome of moral commentary, the Narranschiff, or Ship of Fools. It was inevitable that my interest in the Ship of Fools Tarot would be reignited. Brant’s 15th century work is not only fascinating in its own right, but it was undoubtedly an influence on Jost Amman, whose 16th century deck of 52 playing cards has become a bit of an idee fixe for me of late. I’ve written about Jost Amman’s deck here and here, so I’ll just focus on Brant and Williams’ intertwined creations.

Narranschiff was written to plumb the depths of a long-standing trope, the Ship of Fools. This extended metaphor comes from an allegory by Plato in The RepublicPlato describes a foolish crew and the chaos that results:

Every one is of the opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation and cannot tell who taught him or when he learned, and will further assert that it cannot be taught, and they are ready to cut in pieces any one who says the contrary…Now in vessels which are in a state of mutiny and by sailors who are mutineers, how will the true pilot be regarded? Will he not be called by them a prater, a star-gazer, a good-for-nothing?

It’s a stark yet nuanced metaphor, one that still rings uncomfortably true today. (But I digress.) The ship of fools theme was a popular one during the 15th and 16th centuries, inspiring not only Brant but Hieronymus Bosch and others as well. Even as a new age was dawning, the medieval ability of a court jester–a fool–to criticize society resonated with artists and thinkers who wanted to comment with relative impunity by mocking the behaviors of “a simple fool.”

Brant’s Narranschiff contains woodcut illustrations to accompany satirical verses that comment on various moral shortcomings. The illustrations were done by a variety of artists, including the young Albrecht Durer, and they are splendidly inventive and intricate.

Fast forward several centuries. “Themed” Tarot decks have been popular for the last several decades. They generally conform to the basic iconography of the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) Tarot, but with a particular slant, such as all figures being cats, or goddesses, or all the landscapes set in Arthurian legends. It was this sensibility of creating a RWS deck with a unique slant that apparently inspired Brian Williams. He undertook to draw (both literally and figuratively) from Brant’s work, creating a Tarot in which all the scenes feature fools.

Williams redrew illustrations from the Narranschiff that he deemed representative of each of the 78 cards of the Tarot. The deck is truly a tour de force, an obvious labor of love. The beautifully redrawn scenes are simplified for a clearer look, but they are quite faithful to the originals. In the companion book, Williams shows the illustration from which he worked for each of the cards. For many of the cards, the scene is virtually unchanged from the Narranschiff illustration. This is especially true in the trump suit, fresh and unexpected, with a winged Papess instructing the masses from a lectern, a fool adjusting Justice’s blindfold, and a sad fool carrying an orb of the world on his bent back.



justicejustice card

Yet the RWS Tarot is clearly Williams’ touchstone. Many of Williams’ minor arcana drawings are cobbled together to make the scene more like the RWS model. For instance, the Nine of Swords features someone sitting in his bed thoughtfully, with swords added all around, an obvious nod to the expected RWS depiction. And of course, Williams adds the requisite number of suit symbols to each minor arcana card. This works most subtly in the Staves suit, such as three staves substituting for the three pipes of a bagpipe. In the coins suit it can be glaring–Williams wisely discards the pentagram, but large blank disks don’t always integrate well with an intricate scene.

3 of staves2 of coins

It had been a while since I’d looked at the Ship of Fools Tarot. A lover of medieval art, I liked the pictures, but I was a bit daunted to read with it. What mood must I be in, to want my questions answered wryly, by fools? I did not question the primacy of RWS imagery  or Williams’ artful efforts to get the Narranschiff with the program. Now, some years later, I’ve changed. Like many Tarot lovers, I’ve come to see the RWS minor arcana scenes as a bit prescriptive. I’ve come to prefer the Tarot de Marseille, with its unabashed pip cards. Make what you will of a few coins with leaves curling ’round them!

Anyway, the allure for me in reading cards is that of simply reading images. String pictures together, tell a story. And the pictures don’t even need to be on cards, they could be the ever-changing scene of a simple walk down my street. My beloved Jost Amman cards are a sumptuous walk down a pretty surprising street, and the Narranschiff is an even more curious world.

So with today’s eyes, I find the Ship of Fools Tarot to be a noble effort, but a forced one. Why require the riotous scenes in the Narranschiff to conform to a prescribed imagery? Why strew coins or cups into a world already sufficiently weird and wonderful?

In his companion book to the Ship of Fools Tarot, Williams refers to the Jost Amman illustrations in The Book of Trades, which Amman illustrated 20 years before his playing card deck. Williams comments that a Tarot could be made of them–apparently unaware that Amman himself more or less did just that, “recycling” images to create his deck. The pictures retain their own integrity, with suit symbols suspended above. For the picture’s the thing–worth a thousand words, staves, or cups. To corral it is a fool’s errand, the payment fool’s gold. I’d rather a deck of straight, unadulterated Narranschiff images, full of fools who don’t need to pose as RWS figures or keep track of large blank disks. But for now, Williams’ noble effort is as close as it gets.

How can I clearly see what’s essential?

how can i see clearly what is essential

You cart your mirror with you everywhere. Why not turn around and look in it? Take down the talking heads that get in the way. See, we all have an empty place. We carry it with us, sometimes unaware of it, sometimes offering it to another.

The cards: Ship of Fools Tarot, Brian Williams, 2002.

Blog contents ©2016-2017, the author.





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