Don DeLillo’s massive novel Underworld opens with a prologue called ‘The Triumph of Death’. The title comes from the Bruegel painting that hangs in the Prado in Madrid – the first Bruguel we ever saw in the flesh (so to speak), visiting there on an Easter break in 2003. As spectators watch the closing minutes of the famous Dodgers-Giants 1951 baseball league final, a piece of paper drifts down and sticks to the shoulder of J. Edgar Hoover sitting in the stands. It’s a page torn from that week’s issue of Life magazine, a reproduction of Bruegel’s painting, that illustrates an article about the Prado.
Hoover stares, transfixed at ‘a landscape of visionary havoc and ruin’, in which human figures are ‘impaled on lances, hung from gibbets, drawn on spoked wheels fixed to the top of bare trees, bodies open to the crows’. Death wields his scythe, ‘pressing people in haunted swarms toward the entrance of some helltrap’. There are ‘ash skies and burning ships’.
As Hoover holds the page before him, the painting and the baseball park merge. He sees that ‘all these people have never had anything in common so much as this’, but that they are sitting ‘in the furrow of destruction’. Minutes earlier, he has learnt that the Soviet union has conducted its first nuclear test. Bruegel’s painting repels him; he can’t understand – ‘why a magazine called Life would want to reproduce a painting of such lurid and dreadful dimensions’ – but he ‘can’t take his eyes off the page’.
The painting continues to be a presence throughout the novel. For DeLillo, the baseball game represents a moment when millions of Americans are connected by ‘the pulsing voice on radio, joined to the word-of-mouth that passes the score along the street’ in counterpoint to living under the threat of annihilation during the years of the Cold War. The game is something to believe in, and ‘to believe is to hope, and to hope is to live.’
When we encountered it that Easter in the Prado in Madrid, The Triumph of Death hung directly across from Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. The artists were contemporaries, and both paintings are vast panoramas with forceful moral lessons which ended up here in the Prado because both artists were favourites of Philip II, who acquired many of their works works for the Hapsburg collections.
In Bruegel’s painting – one of the most terrifying of its time and the centuries since – Death lays waste to the earth, triumphing over everyone, whether king or card-player, soldier, mother and child, or young lovers. In a landscape which is death itself – withered grass, blasted trees, and apocalyptic fires burning – Death leads his armies mounted upon a withered horse, and wielding an immense scythe. All around are scenes of destruction in which there is no escape from a brutal or horrific death.
In the foreground, a skeleton cuts a man’s throat while nearby an emaciated dog gnaws the face of a dead baby who lies cradled in the arms of her mother who has died trying to save her. No-one is left to finish burying the dead who lie where they have fallen. One corpse lies abandoned in an open coffin, the body of a dead baby draped over the side.
In the far distance, on a bluff above the sea, a man has been flayed and hung from a tree. His body is pinned in the branches by a metal pin that passes through his skull. Nearby, a man is hung from a gallows, watched by onlookers, while to the right a man is on his knees, blindfolded and about to be decapitated. It’s a vignette that immediately brings to mind the videos released by Isis documenting their own beheadings. More bodies are impaled on the spoked wheels atop poles commonly used at the time to display the bodies of those who had been publicly executed.
In the foreground is the figure of Death riding a skeletal horse, trampling over bodies and wielding a huge scythe. Behind him lumbers a monstrous cart spewing fire and flame, presided over by a mysterious hooded figure, his arm raised as if conducting the massacre. Next to him is a wire cage from which birds – representing the souls of the dead – are escaping, only to be consumed in the Hellish flames which cast no light.
In this painting, Bruegel combines imagery from two visual traditions. The first is the Dance of Death, a late medieval allegory of death’s universality in which Death leads the living in a procession toward the grave. But art historians also point out references to the Italian conception of the Triumph of Death, which he would have seen in frescoes in the Palazzo Sclafani in Palermo during his stay in Italy from 1552 to 1553. Certainly, the figure of Death mounted upon a skeletal horse is strikingly similar.
Death herds the living towards a rectangular container before which humanity is piled up, a tangled mass of tumbling bodies. On either side of the trap skeletons advance on the outnumbered humans behind coffin lids emblazoned with the sign of the cross which have been seized from the the graves that gape across the canvas. The whole scene is unfolding to the sound of drums, trumpets, bells and a hurdy-gurdy.
What is particularly disturbing from a 21st-century perspective is the way in which Bruegel presents the confrontation between the living and the dead not as a chaotic scene of individual fate or retribution, but as the calculated extermination of the living by regiments of armed skeletons, forcing their victims inside the container in a manner strikingly similar to that of the Nazi extermination camps.
Each period of human history has generated its own terrors: for Bruegel, the Triumph of Death is a visual representation of the bloodshed and atrocities unleashed in his time as the forces of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation battled for supremacy: the battalions of the dead carry the sign of the Cross, while the great door of the extermination chamber is also inscribed with the Christian symbol.
Scenes in the lower section of the painting reinforce the message of the Dance of Death: that no-one, whatever their status, escapes. We see that the king, with his ermine-trimmed robe and buckets of silver and gold, is as helpless as everyone else. His death is as inevitable as it is for his subjects: a skeleton leans over his shoulder holding an hourglass in which the sands of time are about to run out.
Beyond, a pale horse hauls a cart filled with skulls, its wheels trampling bodies on the ground. Three of them are women whom experts suggest represent Lachesis, Clotho and Atropos, the goddesses of fate in Greek mythology. It was Atropos, depicted by Bruegel in red, who chose the mechanism of a mortal’s death and ended each life by cutting their thread with her ‘abhorred shears’. She worked with her two sisters – Clotho, who spun the thread, and Lachesis who measured the length. They are both being ground beneath the wheels of the cart.
There is something particularly unbearable about this passage, implying as it does a nihilistic sense of the meaninglessness of death contaminating life. If death leads nowhere, life becomes nothing but ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’, in Shakespeare’s famous expression.
Instead of Fate being portrayed as triumphant, as she would have been in conventional paintings of the time, Bruegel shows her crawling desperately beneath the hooves of an emaciated horse attempting to avoid Death’s impartial tread, an illustration both of the universality of death and the futility of attempting to escape one’s fate.
At the top of the picture ships are aflame or sunk in a harbour while smoke rises from distant towers. Death has laid waste the countryside that lies barren beneath a darkened sky. What strikes me about Bruegel’s depiction of this flayed land is how all the various forms of death he paints refer to the horrors of war. An army has sacked towns and villages, set buildings aflame, herded a community into their chapel and murdered them there.
In the wasteland at the centre of the detail shown above Bruegel has inserted a reference to the medieval legend of the Grateful Dead – but inverted it in the process. In the legend a righteous man comes across the corpse of a person he does not know. Although the man is unknown to him, he still provides a proper burial with religious rites. Later, when his benefactor is attacked, the grateful dead man rises up to protect him.
The Christian Church absorbed the legend, but altered its meaning in order to promote prayer and integrate the doctrine of purgatory: by paying for prayers or purchasing indulgences and thereby proving their devotion to the faith, individuals would save their souls. In The Triumph of Death, skeletal figures with ropes and shovels are seen next to fresh graves. Though the legend of the Grateful Dead has the righteous burying the dead, Bruegel has the dead digging up the righteous. Reversing the folklore, he references the hated church doctrine of indulgences. (See: Satire in the Triumph of Death:
Pieter Bruegel and Humanism by Susan Gisselberg, available online)
There is no escape: death intrudes even at moments of gaiety and peace. At the bottom right of the picture, a group of wealthy people have been startled from their gaming, good food and wine. The backgammon board and playing cards lie scattered, while a masked skeleton empties the wine flasks. Everyone reacts in their different ways: the jester tries to hide under the tablecloth, a richly-garbed man draws his sword, while a pair of lovers at the extreme right continue to make music and gaze into each other’s eyes.
But there is no escape from the scourge of war. Men and women may try to fend off death’s henchmen with sword and spear, but the living are badly outnumbered, their efforts futile. Death is inevitable and unsparing of high or low, a lesson that medieval and Renaissance artists reiterated. And death comes in many guises: the variety of tortures in store during wartime is unlimited.
At the left of the painting a great bell is being tolled by two skeletons, while those who have taken refuge in an isolated tower and in a a small chapel are massacred. As always in his paintings, the landscape in which Bruegel depicts these horrors is recognisably Dutch. It’s possible that the scenes he depicts were conjured from his imagination, or were conventions based on earlier artists’ visions. But it is also possible that they represent atrocities he might have witnessed or heard about during the Spanish terror campaign against Protestants in the Netherlands that was to culminate in full-scale revolt against Spanish rule in 1567, two years before Bruegel’s death.
Jonathan Jones, writing in the Guardian, argued that ‘Bruegel is a historian of the horrors we know’. In The Massacre of the Innocents, Death in the guise of Philip II’s soldiers batters at the door of Dutch villagers:
Death was doing this regularly in Bruegel’s southern Netherlands in the late 1560s, as the beginnings of the Dutch revolt against Catholic rule provoked vicious repression. In 1565, despite the urging of local nobles for moderation, Philip II reaffirmed the death penalty for heresy among his Netherlands subjects; in 1566 there were Calvinist riots; in 1567 the Duke of Alba was sent with an army to try to crush dissent for good, resulting in one of the cruellest military campaigns in European history.
Unusually for a painting of this period, Bruegel seems to offer no distinct religious meaning, no Christian message of redemption. God is absent, and there is no hint of salvation through Christ, as in many other paintings of the period that warn of death’s inevitability. Instead, the pair of skeletons tolling the black bell in the upper left corner, seem to be ringing the death knell of humanity.
The Triumph of Death seems to send an implacable message: that all will perish by the same uncaring hand of Death, and there will be no redemption. While the armies of the dead bear the holy cross aloft, Bruegel suggests there will be no salvation of the soul. Death is ugly and death is final. In an era when belief in an afterlife and the grace of God were axiomatic, this painting must have been profoundly shocking.
In Don DeLillo’s evocation of the crowd at a 1951 baseball game, Bruegel’s apocalyptic vision stands for the fear of nuclear annihilation that would haunt a generation. But that fear has faded to be replaced by new nightmares that now haunt the 21st century: towers toppling, bombs exploding in crowded city streets, beheadings and gruesome tortures.
Almost exactly a year after we had gazed at Bruegel’s nightmare vision, during Madrid’s rush hour on the morning of 11 March 2004, at Atocha train station – a ten minute walk from the Prado – three bombs exploded, followed in the next two minutes by another seven bombs at three different stations. 191 people were killed and almost 2000 maimed.
In his latest book, Mohsin Hamid, the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist who lives in Lahore, has an essay called ‘Living in the age of permawar‘ in which he writes:
Humanity is afflicted by a great mass murderer about whom we are encouraged not to speak. The name of that murderer is Death. Death comes for everyone. Sometimes Death will pick out a newborn still wet from her aquatic life in her mother’s womb. Sometime Death will pick out a man with the muscles of a superhero, pick him out in repose, perhaps, or in his moment of maximum exertion, when his thighs and shoulders are trembling and he feels most alive. Sometimes Death will pick singly. Sometimes Death will pick by the planeload. Sometimes Death picks the young, sometimes the old, and sometimes Death has an appetite for the in-between.
You feel it is strange that humanity does not come together to face this killer, like a silver-flashing baitball of 7 billion fish aware of being hunted by a titanic and ravenous shark. Instead, humanity scatters. We face our killer alone, or in families, or in towns or cities or tribes or countries. But never all together.
Death divides us because often it assumes human form. It makes of one of its future victims a present instrument. And so we humans have come to fear each other. And, because we humans can clearly be beaten, as adversaries we are far more attractive than Death itself, and so we humans have come to plan and scheme to defeat us humans, to build great superstructures of law and belief and politics and violence out of our fears of the Death we see reflected in ourselves.
There is no shark, we 7 billion shimmering fish say, there are only cannibals.
That, I think, is what Bruegel’s great painting represents: that Death is not something outside of our common humanity, but is within us, galvanised by our religions and our ideologies. Bruegel holds up the mirror, but says no more. Mohsin Hamid concludes his essay by offering hope that Bruegel, for whatever reason, chose to omit from his painting:
So you are a reader, a writer, in this, the time of the permawar, searching, among other things, for empathy, for transcendence, for encounters that need not divide us into clans, for stories that can be told around a campfire generous enough for 7 billion, stories that transcend divisions, question the self and the boundaries of groups, stories that are a shared endeavour not at the level of the tribe, but of the human, that remind us we are not adversaries, we are in it together, the great mass murderer, Death, has us all in its sights, and we would do well not to allow ourselves willingly to be its instruments, but instead to recognise one another with compassion, not as predatory cannibals, but as meals for the same shark, each with a limited, precious time to abide, a time that deserves our respect and our wonder, a time that is a story, each of us a story, each of them a story, and each of these other stories, quite possibly, just as unique, just as frightened, as tiny, as vast, as made up as our own.
In pursuit of Bruegel: See all the posts about paintings by Bruegel that we have seen in London, Brussels, Antwerp, Berlin and Vienna here