The meatblood colors and massed bodies, this is a census-taking of awful ways to die.
(Don DeLillo, Underworld)
The closest source may be the fresco that once stood in the courtyard of Palazzo Sclafani in Palermo, and was crudely lifted in four parts so that now in reproduction it looks like a poster showing the creases from where it was folded.
Death crashes a garden party, a skeleton riding a skeletal horse. It carries a scythe by its side but its weapon of choice for now is a bow and arrows. Take a moment to survey the scene. At the bottom you’ll find the already dead: emperors, popes, bishops and monks, the rulers of feudal Europe. The courtiers in the right side of the image are next in line, including the young man whose neck has just been pierced by Death’s arrow. Note the lute player who’s about to get trampled by Death’s horse, and the harpist by the fountain in the top right-hand corner of the fresco, who continue to play, and the courtiers who go on talking, indifferent to the catastrophe that is about to befall them, or possibly unaware. But note also, more heart-rendingly, the peasants on the left hand-side of the picture, whom Death appears to have left behind, and who are now begging the rider to turn around and give them their deliverance.
There is no reversal of fortune in the order in which people die, just a touch of cosmic irony: the powerful are the first to go, but their fate is not as tragic as that of the oppressed. Death too is a privilege, until the bitter end.
It has been speculated that when Pieter Bruegel travelled to Italy, in the early 1550s, he might have ventured as far as Palermo. There is no evidence for this other than the possible influence of that century-old Gothic fresco on his own Triumph of Death.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Triumph of Death, c. 1562. Click here to enlarge.
I visited Madrid with my family in 1983, and spent so long studying this painting that my sister bought me a print from the gift shop at the Prado. I have it still. It is a very good reproduction – its procedimiento oleográfico patentado genuinely giving it something of the texture of the original – and the fidelity of scale means you can really pore over the details, which is what fascinated me about Bruegel when I was a child. Those tiny, perfectly formed yet at the same time also cartoonish-looking human figures – so common in Flemish art but almost entirely unknown in our own, save for some minor medieval examples – struck me as so much more real than the flawless subjects of Italian Renaissance portraiture by Michelangelo and Leonardo, Piero della Francesca and Mantegna. That there might in fact be a shared lineage with the comics I consumed avidly at the time of my visit to Spain may be half-confirmed by Albert Uderzo’s lovely spoof of Bruegel’s Wedding Banquet in Asterix in Belgium. And perhaps there is something reminiscent of Where’s Wally? in The Fall of Icarus, or The Suicide of Saul.
But to look closely at The Triumph of Death is a different kind of experience altogether. There is nothing comic about this scene, little in fact to connect it with the fresco in Palermo, save for the central figure of the skeletal horse-riding reaper and the lone musician in the bottom right-hand side corner who won’t stop playing. And if the king whose life ebbs out in the span measured by his skeleton guardian on a hourglass is there to signify that Death will strike you no matter how powerful you are, this time there is no safety – however unwelcome – for the poorest among his subjects. Death is everywhere, from the cities that burn and the ships that sink in the far distance to the demons’ fortification that, in a ghastly presage, burns like a giant open air furnace. People are not merely dying: they are being exterminated.
As Perez Zagorin has documented, Bruegel’s life and works have been the subject over the centuries of intensely speculative interpretations matching his growing appreciation as one of the foremost European artists of his time. We know in fact very little about Bruegel’s life, and he left no writings or other clues that could furnish an intellectual background to his works. Geographer’s Abraham Ortelius’ inclusion of Bruegel in his liber amicorum, or book of friends, has been taken by some critics as sufficient proof that he belonged like Ortelius to the sect of the Family of Love, and that we ought therefore to scan his paintings in search of cryptic signs of this secret affiliation and of his political and religious apostasy. Even on his attitudes to the peasant class, one of his chief subjects, critics are evenly divided between those who think that he held it in satirical contempt or regarded it rather as worthy of sympathetic representation. To say nothing of Bruegel’s complex and as yet unsolved allegories, like The Parable of the Blind, or the works that require an elaborate key, like The Netherlandish Proverbs. I have touched upon some of the issues to do with the overinterpretation of hidden or semi-hidden details in Bruegel’s paintings in relation to the already mentioned Landscape with the Fall of Icarus – and it matters little that this work is no longer generally attributed to Bruegel, for it belongs to the history of his critical reception.
By contrast with most of Bruegel’s other major works, The Triumph of Death appears utterly transparent and uncomplicated. The theme itself had a long tradition in medieval art and had been treated in Bruegel’s lifetime by Hans Holbein in his book Les simulachres & historiees faces de la mort, a title rendered in English as ‘images and storied aspects of Death’ (with the lamentable loss of that most postmodern of words, simulacra). However Holbein’s prints, like the fresco in Palermo and the innumerable danses macabres that preceded them, are still overtly allegorical and symbolic, whereas in Bruegel – if an allegory is still to be found – what is most striking is the brutal, graphic realism of the scene. Every trace of stylised aestheticism is gone, and neither can the message of the painting be reduced to a comforting memento mori. We’re not merely reminded that everyone must die, but faced with the prospect of a gruesome, violent death, for everyone.
Writing in Renaissance Quarterly in 1968, Peter Thon advanced the possibility that The Triumph of Death might not have been painted in the early 1560s, as it was generally believed, but rather at the end of the decade, that is to say in the year preceding Bruegel’s death, and that it would refer therefore directly to the campaign of terror conducted in the Netherlands from 1568 by the Duke of Alva on behalf of King Philip II of Spain.
The Dance of Death figures in the foreground and the grim reaper on his pale horse in the middle of the picture establish the traditional connotations for the scene; but the bulk of details in the distance discloses Bruegel's undisguised vision of his land under Spanish tyranny, where men are hunted down like animals for their beliefs, hung, hoisted on the wheel, burned together at the stake, or decapitated singly, blindfolded and clutching the crucifix. The active participation of the skeletons in these bloody actions, and their massive attack on the helpless living throughout the picture reveal their true significance: the skeleton armies of death represent the Spanish soldiers and executioners. Their regime in the Netherlands is the Triumph of Death.
When Thon writes that ‘[i]t seems certain that the repressions of Hapsburg rule […] had a profound psychological effect on Bruegel’, it is hard not to regard it as an example of the kind of unsubstantiated inferences made about the artist’s beliefs that Zagorin cautions against. It should also be pointed out that Thon’s postdating of the painting isn’t reflected in the current catalogues, that still place it in 1562-63, before the repressive Spanish rule turned into all-out terror.
However, if in fact The Triumph of Death isn’t a coded allusion to a specific set of historical events, an impassioned and uncompromising j’accuse against the foreign rulers and their militias, then it’s even more terrifying. On a literal level, the painting is a catalogue of violent deaths: its hapless humanity is drowned, burned, hanged, beheaded, hoisted at the wheel, slit at the throat, trampled, stabbed, mauled by wild dogs or herded into a giant death trap. But if these aren’t references to actual atrocities, then they are not ways of dying: they are conditions of living. And therein lies a worse horror.
Thon is correct when he notes that Bruegel’s reinvention of the theme subverted its traditional Christian message. There are crosses everywhere in the painting, including on the death trap itself, as if to say that in this, the Protestant century, faith was not only powerless to preserve and give hope, but had become a symbol of despair itself. However the most striking and peculiar departure from the treatment of the triumph of death, as Thon also remarks, is the assault of the dead upon the living. Based on this feature alone we could say that Bruegel’s painting is one of history’s earliest horror films, but this is more than a generic convergence: that the image of an army of the undead should be formed just as modern Europe was being born has far deeper implications, chiefly on ideas of cultural continuity and history. Just as the Italian Renaissance was carefully drawing intellectual and artistic connections with the classical heritage of Southern Europe, so in the ravaged North the past materialised in the form of a murderous ghost phalanx intent on destroying not just progress, but the future itself.
Peter Thon. ‘The Triumph of Death Reconsidered.’ Renaissance Quarterly. Vol. 21, No. 3 (Autumn, 1968), pp. 289-299.
Perez Zagorin. ‘Looking for Pieter Bruegel.’ Journal of the History of Ideas. Vol. 64, No. 1 (January, 2003), pp. 73-96.
Piero Bianconi (ed.). L'opera completa di Bruegel. Milano: Rizzoli, 1967.