Friday, February 06, 2009

The Triumph of Death

The first time I saw that painting was in late 1980's, on the cover of an un-official greatest hits album of heavy metal band, Black Sabbath. I don't remember anymore how long it was, staring at every detail of that horrific piece of art. In the beginning and before starting searching for the origins of this painting I thought it was a depiction of some event from Dante's Inferno's i.e. The Divine Comedy, but I was proven wrong when I knew that the original author is no one but the Belgian artist Pieter Breugel "the Elder", born in 1525 in Breda, the Netherlands but lived all his life in present day Belgium (between Antwerp and Brussels). He died in Brussels, on September 1569. Breugel is considered by many as the greatest Flemish painter of the 16'th century. One of the distinguished trade-marks of this artist are the details he emphasized on in each of his paintings. He focused mainly in his work on landscapes and peasant's life. These trade-marks he used granted him some uniqueness regarding his work, mainly what I call it the manipulation in the different dimensions illustrated on his paintings that gives some sort of a story telling - see his stunning work on "Netherlandish Proverbs" or "Fall of Icarus", or the amazing "The Tower of Babel ", and all these little details spotted here and there on each painting. "The Triumph of Death" was no difference from the typical Breugel style. The painting was completed in 1562 - some 6 years before the 80 years war in the lower lands, led by Willem van Oranje. It has been made by oil on panel with 117 x 162 cm in size.

This painting is about skeletons, all about skeletons - reminds me of the movie "army of darkness". These skeletons is in full charge attacking mankind of all sorts.

The first impression I take from looking into the details of this painting is that no discrimination whatsoever regarding the life-style or class of humans, all must die, from the king to the peasant, man or woman, old or young, it doesn't matter, all were destined to be dead. In addition, the painting doesn't show the end of the story, there is an ongoing process, the advanced skeletons on each side approaching in huge numbers, the attempt by some to stop them, the skeleton on the horse carrying a lamp looking for skulls (maybe), the net held on each side by other skeletons trapping humans in it - and maybe throw them to the water near by, while another skeleton riding a horse and with his sceythe harvesting what comes in his way of human souls.

I can imagine the artist sitting on his own, thinking and calculating the ways of killing human beings; by sword, drowning, hanging, beheading, slitting throats, even by the fear of what to come. In addition, one can see death that comes from animals in the form of a sort of a mutilated dogs and horses predating peasants and other humans. Pieter Beugel did also illustrated the devastation that death would bring to a whole civilization - smoke here and there on different places. So death is extending its arm to include nature, the ground and the sea.

Another observation that I see it as a very strong and effective of the artist is his group of skeletons wearing like Romans watching the massacare, with a huge cross erected in the middle at a panel, with a man dead hanging from the edges of that panel. Is this a symbol of the artist view on religion during that time? a time of conflict between the various Christian groups, which involved political domination and military oppression? Or is it that these skeletons do believe in God as human do and that's an indication at such?

But wait a minute, when I look at the big tent far near the coastline, where thousands of skeleton queuing and waiting for their turn in the slaughter, would the sinking ships indicates something like a failed attempt to purge those skeletons from existence? or were these skeletons came by sea?

I realized a fact after reading about this great actor how he became famous with his simplicity in the way he made his paintings. However, one of the things I was puzzled with is the women that was sitting with an open book in her hand and her face looking down at the man sitting at her feet and playing music on his lute. In spite of all this blood bath, there are who are doing two things, reading a book (praying maybe?) and playing music! Speaking of music, Beugel did align music to the advancement of the mass of skeletons by putting a skeleton standing at a higher spot and hammering on war-drums.

Some sources assume that Peiter Beugel predicted in this painting what would be happening to his people in years to come i.e. the 80 years war and how death and plague (which is also can be considered as a theme for this - both existed at that time) can take over everything.

The original painting is displayed at the Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

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