Wednesday, 23 April 2014

A long and proud tradition!

Supplementary material

Jheronymus van Aken, better known today as Hieronymus Bosch was a Dutch painter from the late XVth-early XVIth century. He is famous for many striking paintings of hellish visions full of fabulous medieval beasts, nightmarish creatures, the grotesque fate of sinners in the afterworld and the like. These somber subjects are treated with a wonderful sense of creativity, an omnipresent sense of humour and more than a few hidden references! A serious analysis of Bosch's painting often reveals references to alchemical concepts or religious, social and political allegory.

The painting that gets our friend Bob all misty-eyed, up there, is called "the cure for folly"; it is currently in the museo del Prado in Madrid. It should be representing a doctor cutting out from his patient's head the stone that causes stupidity, but as is often the case in Bosch's work things aren't as simple as all that. First, I don't think anyone ever tried to make someone less stupid by removing rocks from their heads, although the device used in this image is appropriate for a late 1400's trepanation. We are therefore dealing in allegory: a learned person, or someone pretending to be learned, offers to improve a client's intelligence by some quick operation that does not involve any effort on their part. That the practitioner is a charlatan is made clear by his wearing a funnel for a hat: while the funnel is an appropriate tool in a scientist's laboratory, this is clearly not its intended use; like modern peddlers in "alternative" medecine, "alternative" science and "alternative" ways of knowledge, this person is wearing the trappings of a genuine scientists but doing it all wrong. He probably uses big scientific-sounding words too, in a haphazard and clueless way. Notice that what is extracted from the patient's head isn't even the purported stone of folly: it is actually a golden flower, which might represent whatever smarts the poor guy had to begin with. By trusting his fate to the skills of a charlatan, he has just given it all away.

Funnel hats were worn by other characters in Bosch's paintings, usually by doomed sinners, little demons or fraudsters. Funnel hats are today usually shown as appropriate headwear for crazy people, but it's difficult to say if that's as a result of their use in Bosch's work or as a popular tendency to put anything conical on the head of fools: dunce caps come to mind. (It may be stretching things a bit but a bishop also wears a conical hat called a mitre, and in the French language the chess piece we know as a bishop is called a "fou"... here a court jester, but the word also means "madman").

Bob's tin foil hat is not a funnel per se, despite its general shape (which also looks like a Hershey kiss). According to some conspiracy theorists, such an aluminum skullcap protects one from the government's mind-controlling microwave emitters, from aliens' telepathic probes, from mind-altering electromagnetic radiations and god knows what else. The origin of the concept is likely to be a 1927 science-fiction story ("the tissue-culture king") written by British biologist Julian Huxley, brother of Aldous Huxley (of Brave new world fame) and grandson to famous evolutionary biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, also known as Darwin's bulldog for his fierce defence of the theory of evolution during its first years.

The tin foil hat also gave us the funniest scene in M. Night Shyamalan's movie Signs.

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