Albrecht Durer, Renaissance, woodblock prints

Ship of Fools, or Sin and Vice in Renaissance Europe

Submitted by Marsha Morrow on

In 1494, German humanist Sebastian Brant authored Das Narrenschiff, or The Ship of Fools, a moralistic poem that describes 110 assorted follies and vices as undertaken by different fools. Each sin or vice in the book is accompanied by a finely detailed woodcut that gives its literal or allegorical interpretation. In the form of an allegory, a ship laden and steered by fools sails to the promised land of Narragonia--from the German narr meaning fool. Brant lashes with unsparing vigor at the weaknesses and vices of his time. The work was an instant success and is often thought of as the first European best-seller. It has six authorized and seven pirated editions published before 1521, including translations into Latin, French and English. Though it is unclear which edition the library owns, it is a rare and fascinating volume.  

While it was first thought that Brant himself was the fundamental contributor to the design of the woodcuts, the bulk of the work is now most commonly attributed to Albrecht Dürer. Dürer spent part of his journeyman years from 1492 – 1494 in Basel. During this time he worked as an illustrator for many of Basel’s pre-eminent publishers, including Johann Bergmann von Olpe, the publisher of Das Narrenschiff. Approximately 75 of the 114 woodblock prints are thought to be by Dürer, and though not as accomplished as his later works, they are considered to be his earliest commissioned pieces. 

From this humble beginning, Dürer went on to become one of Renaissance Europe’s most versatile artists, known not only for printmaking, but as a draftsman and a painter. Some of his most well known and compelling engravings will be on display this summer in the Museum’s Prints and Drawings Gallery, in the exhibition Dürer's Women: Images of Devotion & Desire. The exhibition will feature over fifty rarely seen prints from the collection and is the first CMA exhibition since the early 1990’s devoted to Dürer’s oeuvre.