Saints, Sinners, Lovers and Fools: Three Hundred Years of Flemish Masterworks opens June 8 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and runs through October 20, 2024.



By Katharina Van Cauteren


The Montréal Review, May 2024


Homer’s gods can roar with laughter. Zeus, Hera, Poseidon and the rest of the cabal — grinning, giggling, splitting their sides. Anything man can do, the gods can do better. The Greek pantheon is a projection of the terrestrial on to the celestial. It’s only when God becomes man that he stops laughing. Jesus doesn’t do stand-up. There are no gags in the Bible, no guffaws or gales of laughter. The Christian faith is an awfully serious thing.

Or so medieval theologians conclude, at any rate. In the absence of so much as a muffled biblical titter they decide that humour and virtue must be incompatible. Christianity is an ode to reason, in the best Platonic tradition. And as far as reason is concerned, anything received and perceived by the senses is a bad thing — Dionysian, bestial, impulsive, uncontrolled. Reason can’t bear unrestrained laughter. Worse, laughing distorts God’s creation: cheeks puff out, eyes squeeze shut, teeth are bared, bellies, buttocks and bingo wings jiggle, bladders are compressed, you may even wet your knickers. No, a modest Marian smile is just about acceptable, but splutters and smirks, grins and grimaces — they definitely belong to the devil’s domain, as pernicious as other unreasoning urges like the lover’s libido, the drunk’s delirious hilarity, or the gambler’s addiction. It’s the realm of the primitive impulsive outsider, of the peasant, of the fool.


In the late-medieval Netherlands, every right-minded burgher knows that ‘peasant’ and ‘fool’ are virtually one and the same thing. Urbanites look down their noses at villagers, even though their parents, grand - parents or great-great-grandparents were probably peasants themselves. But now, in the Low Countries, beside the grey North Sea, the old world is shaking on its social foundations. For in strategically sited towns and cities a new species of human is making its entrée. While the divine dramatis personae included only clergy, nobles and peasants, enterprising citizens are now elbowing their way on to the social scene.

Generally speaking, entrepreneurs are critical, levelheaded, realistic beings. They can do without heroism or conceit — life is truth enough. They can afford to chortle at jokes that a nobleman may find funny but can’t laugh at, since social decorum requires him to keep a straight face. At the same time, peasants and fools are just yokels and bumpkins, so they’re ideal objects of ridicule and jest. And thus the growing pains of a new social structure make the prosperous towns and cities of the Netherlands the perfect testing ground for a whole new kind of humour.

Peasants, apparently, are doltish and primitive; all they think about is feasting, eating and drinking to excess, and sex. They eagerly indulge in every conceivable vice and have no control over their bestial tendencies. But what else can you expect — peasants are part and parcel of nature, sons of the soil, tasked by God with tilling and growing and breeding. A mission that they carry out with far too much enthusiasm, according to the morally pedantic townsfolk. In the self-satisfied eyes of merchants and entrepreneurs, God made the peasant to be the antithesis of the civilised city dweller, who, if he has urges, knows how to curb them and would never be guilty of laughing too loudly.


Except, that is, when that thin layer of civilisation is briefly scratched away. During the Church’s feasts of fools, the social order is inverted, the world is turned upside down in a jaw-dropping extravaganza of excess. Clerics found foolish kingdoms ruled by child bishops or donkey popes. Venerable brothers dress up in drag, cavort in the choir and bellow bawdy ballads. Greasy sausages are served on the altar and holy water is replaced by piss. Then the monks move out of the church and into the town.

Sooner or later, a party will attract gatecrashers. What started as a parody of ecclesiastical ritual takes on a secular life of its own in the sixteenth century. Tavern-crawling, binge-quaffing citizens treat the world to a view of what they normally keep decorously covered and gleefully moon their shitty bare arses.

A couple of times a year, the townsfolk carouse in a collective crapulence that negates everyday life’s less pleasant aspects and, for a little while, turns them into the exact ecstatic opposite.

While they hijack the feast from the clerics, they choose their fool from the nobility. And — genuine nutters or not — these buffoons egg on the boozing brothers and bacchanalian burghers in their folly. They caper and gibber, use obscene gestures and scatological slapstick. To make you laugh till you cry! Christ may not have been given to giggling, but late-medieval man certainly knows what nonsense is.

Quinten Metsys
A Fool or Folly, c.1525-30
Oil on panel, 60.3 x 47.6 cm


The newfangled humanists bemusedly observe the chaos from a safe distance and wonder what on earth is going on. Striving for some kind of intellectual grasp of the proceedings, they disinter the reflections of Aristotle, Quintilian and Cicero on the workings and effects of laughter from their thick layers of medieval dust. And thus opposing yet complementary worldviews develop, comedy juxtaposed with tragedy, like yin with yang, Democritus with Heraclitus — a kind of theatrical peristalsis in which profound throat-constricting insight is relieved by the fool’s fart. Which is how the uninhibited medieval joke enters the category of ‘folly’, as a counterbalance to the seriousness of ‘wisdom’. It happens on stage, but equally in painting. And around 1500, ‘painting’ is synonymous with ‘the Netherlands’.

In the sixteenth century, when it came to the visual arts, cities such as Bruges and Ghent and especially Antwerp were international quality brands. Where there is demand, supply will follow: in Antwerp around 1560 there were more painters than bakers. Add a middle-class buying public with middle-class norms and values, season with middle-class humour, and the result is the perfect recipe for a whole new artistic genre.

The fool is uprooting himself from the margins — literally. In medieval manuscripts and church sculpture, drolleries and jests were usually to be found around the edges. Now the marginalia become subjects in their own right. Fool-filled pictures present us with a mirror, for aren’t we all a tad foolish, a bit preposterous? Images of unequal love show lustful old men embracing artful damsels who make off with their purse, hahaha! In illustrations of gender-reversal, viragoes wear the trousers while their henpecked husbands are turned into jessies, heeheehee! Monkeys ape people, and so monkey paintings — singeries — act as a witty spoonful of honey to help inconvenient truths go down. Often, cackling characters will turn to the viewers and encourage them to chortle along with them, like the canned laughter in a TV sit-com.

A lot of the humour is on a level that would make Benny Hill seem intellectual. But even the biggest brainiac secretly slumps on the sofa and laughs at Dumb & Dumber’s flatulent farts and puerile pranks. In 1604 that renowned biographer of artists, Karel van Mander, cheerfully describes turds in paintings as aardige bootsen or ‘pleasant jests’. The French, of course, are above that kind of thing. Piss and poo are not de rigueur: in the seventeenth century, a French dealer in Flemish paintings specifically asks for pieces in which no one is urinating. Evidently the Parisian beau monde is too po-faced for jokes involving excrement.

Quinten Metsys
Fool with a Spoon (detail), c.1525-30
Oil on paper, mounted on a panel, 25.3 x 19.4 cm


Fortunately for the more sensitive souls there is also nonsense of a different calibre. Set a humanist to piss-taking and the result is more Monty Python than Mr Bean. The medieval gags acquire Erasmian irony and evolve into an intellectual game that you can play with your like-minded mates. In that context, painters such as Quinten Metsys ( c.1466–1530) and Marinus van Reymerswaele ( c.1490– c.1546) are quick to recycle the caricatures of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), poignant portraits demonstrating that nature herself is not averse to a little irony, as she lets beauty wither and smooth skins shrivel into crow’s feet and crumpled craters with sunken eyes and hooked noses. We may smile at the vanity of youth, but the decay of the elderly is painfully funny, for humour is also a salve for the wound of reality.

No one in the visual arts understands that better than Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1526/30–1569). His paintings give us a glimpse into the convex mirror of life. Laugh at the blind leading the blind and you’re likely to fall into a pit yourself. This is next-level humour, witty, playful — and deadly serious. There are good reasons why Van Mander describes Bruegel as ‘ingenious and farcical’ and ‘sharp and droll’ in one and the same breath. Though subsequently he also dubs him ‘Pier den Drol’ — Pieter the Joker — in reference to the faecal farce that was so characteristic of the elder Bruegel.

Circle of Jan Massijs
Rebus: The World Feeds Many Fools (detail), c.1530-40
Oil on panel, 37.5 x 48.5 cm


Meanwhile, the fool is conquering the world. Or not — it turns out that the world is the fool’s. New people are discovered in the New World. Their laughter is rude and raucous by western standards but they are also marvellously innocent. These are the lost children of paradise, distant cousins of the fol saige: the fools who had a lucky escape from the Fall, vague reflections of the purity of the first twosome, uncontaminated by fiend-authored wisdom. The world went to hell in a handbasket when Adam’s teeth met in the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge: before that, creation was in perfect balance — God doesn’t do things by halves — but with that fatal bite, harmony was at an end. Henceforth the world would take root in evil — witness Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. At a stroke, creation lost its preter - natural primal purity. But that was to reckon without the fools. Because they are innocent of knowledge, they embody another piece of pristine paradise.

Original sin is all Eve’s fault, of course. It would never have crossed Adam’s mind to eat forbidden fruit if Eve hadn’t enticed him into it. If only the wretched woman had stuck to the divine rules! Today we’d still be living the life of Riley. No worries about energy bills or how to make ends meet — just the endless leisure of a sempiternal spring, and perfect weather forever — thanks a bunch, Eve! Ever since she seduced Adam, the female of the species has embodied everything connected with lust and passion. In other words, woman must be kept in check, as if she were a roar of laughter. Men who let themselves be dominated by a woman are the butt of hilarious jokes in literature and painting. Though it can happen to the best: even Aristotle indulged in horseplay and allowed Phyllis to ride him. Sometimes the greatest scholar turns out to be the biggest fool.


Ironically enough, it’s the fool who actually escapes this kind of social pigeonholing. Whether he’s genuinely developmentally challenged or merely acting, he inhabits a social vacuum. And that has its advantages. The fool is not bound by social norms. Man, woman, emperor, king, admiral — it’s all the same to him. He lives in a crazy space in which the extenuating cloak of humour that is often pretty near the knuckle allows him to criticise social problems without a qualm. His licence lies in his physical deformity. Hunchback, dwarfism and hydrocephaly: this fool is no clown. He — or she — can afford to laugh while truth-telling, even if that truth is buried among piss and shit, sex and snot.

This is the reason why Erasmus eschews the first-person singular in his In Praise of Folly and leaves the talking to his mouthpiece, Stultitia, not coincidentally a woman. Thus Folly lends him a broad back to hide behind when he vents his various social criticisms. Offended readers can always be reminded that it’s not the author himself, but a character in the book who voiced this or that opinion. It’s a neat trick, and not surprisingly, given the religious upheavals of the time, it’s replicated by everyone who wants to put the Catholic Church — with its indulgences, relic trade and not-so-unattached lifestyle of the clergy — through the wringer. But what’s sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander: if Protestants can condemn Catholicism through mockery and satire, the Catholics are happy to return the compliment. Although there’s not much subtlety involved on either side, since the cruder the language the louder the laugh; statues of saints are compared to fools, Catholics are cats or popish parrots. Conversely, the Protestants are geese, the Calvinists calves. It won’t win you the Comedy Cup, but that doesn’t lessen the effect.

Unknown Master
Portrait of Claus Narr von Ranstedt, c.1530
Oil on panel, 15.9 x 13.7 cm


This immediately suggests that humour is bound not only to place, but also to time. In the sixteenth century, comedy comes in the form of animals dressed up as humans, proverbs, peasant burlesques, clichés and caricatures such as ill-matched couples, quacks, jesters, misers, viragoes and henpecked husbands. In the seventeenth century, the artistic focus shifts to situations inspired by everyday life. Amorous adventures are still firm favourites, but are less of a parody and therefore more recognisable. Soldiers start to make an appearance, for even in times of war a person needs to laugh to make the bitter pill of reality a bit easier to swallow. Merry drinkers have always been around, doctors are still charlatans, smokers are abreast of the latest trends, but they are all fools. Hitting the artistic nail on the head now means employing a little deceit and gently pulling the viewer’s leg. Because witticisms are now replacing the elbow-in-the-ribs side-splitters.

Humour becomes part of the ideal of the educated courtier and commoner. As Anna Roemer Visscher (1583–1651) puts it, ‘He is not wise, who cannot sometimes be foolish.’ In courtly companies, joke-cracking becomes an art: quips and badinage, seemingly effortlessly woven into the conversation, prompting smiles, not greasy grimaces. From now on, beauty and decorum go hand in hand. It leaves little artistic room for the excesses that a good thighslapper requires. Even the peasants leave off their sixteenth-century roistering and morph into bucolic seventeenth-century shepherds and shepherdesses, and ultimately idyllic wallpaper. Thus they sidle from burlesque to picturesque, and in the eighteenth century the English can introduce them as welcome morsels between the entrées of heroic and idyllic. And here we can already see a glimmer of the Victorian mindset in which all things platonic are once again good and anything too corporeal and earthy is once again bad. No wonder the Anglo-Saxon world often winces with embarrassment at the off-colour antics of the various Verbeecks or the lumpen pawkiness of Jacob Jordaens’s slices of life.


Before that point is reached, however, the path of humour winds past Voltaire’s enlightened satire and Frederick the Great’s witty philological games in Sanssouci. With the French Revolution, the nobility and clergy stop laughing. The social (r)evolution that began so long ago in the medieval Lowlands now brings down the whole system, resulting in civil society. It brings the freedom to make jokes — until recently, at any rate, since political correctness and cancel culture seem to have put the kibosh on comedy. For where does humour end and offence begin? Can the one exist without the other, or is humour almost by definition at the expense of someone or something? Could it be that we simply daren’t look in the mirror any more?

Joke and joke-teller question themselves, and the paradigm shifts — again. Old jokes seem out of place, inappropriate jokes are banned or at least frowned upon, or nobody gets it anyway. But if one thing is evident, it’s that historical things should be seen in a historical context, especially when they seem brash or tasteless or presumptuous. For nothing shows how the world works so clearly as a joke. Jokes show what’s taboo and what isn’t, they show the differences between the ruling classes and the underdogs; they show what preoccupies people. The laugh unmasks the world.

Saints, Sinners, Lovers and Fools takes a refreshingly unvarnished look at the jokes and pranks of late medieval and early modern joke-tellers. The laughing fools, deceived men, domineering women, dancing peasants and crapping clodhoppers — they offer a gateway to a vanished world full of bawdy buffoonery and ribald raillery, of dreams and dread, anxieties and ambitions, customs and conventions — in short, to a world full of people. Seen through that lens, these artworks suddenly become startlingly easy to identify with. For at the end of the day, they testify to a profoundly human story. The jokes may have evolved, but five centuries on the people behind them are still surprisingly recognisable.

Humour is Ulieden Spiegel, a mirror of ourselves, always has been, always will be. Humour lays bare our concerns, our frame of mind, our true nature. Humour, no matter how crude or how ‘incorrect’, shows what makes us human.


Katharina Van Cauteren is an academic editor and chief of staff at The Phoebus Foundation.


Saints, Sinners, Lovers and Fools: Three Hundred Years of Flemish Masterworks opens June 8 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and runs through October 20, 2024. Organized by the Denver Art Museum and The Phoebus Foundation of Antwerp, Belgium, this major exhibition presents masterpieces by celebrated artists of the period - Hans Memling, Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, Jacob Jordaens and Michaelina Wautier, among many others - and demonstrates how their timeless, compelling themes continue to resonate with audiences today.

The exhibition begins with religious art from the 15th and early 16th centuries. Filled with symbolism and delightful detail, these works give visitors an appreciation of how Flemish citizens used images to interact with higher powers, build community, and secure their heritage. This section is followed by a group of paintings depicting fools and foolish behavior, showing how artists used humor to both moralize and entertain.




The Montréal Review © All rights reserved. ISSN 1920-2911