Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Coronavirus Shadow is as Terrifying as Breugel's Triumph

Triumph of Death by Bruegel ca.1562

When I think of the Coronovirus leaping around the globe and adding to the daily death count, I think of one of the most terrifying paintings in history, the Triumph of Death, an oil-on-wood-panel painting, created in 1562. It has something, like this virus, of everyone’s worst nightmare. Set along a coast in a village with commerce, the scene looks like a premonition of hell. Flames and smoke dot the horizon. It’s an eco-horror. There isn’t a sign of any green life in the landscape. Trees are being chopped down. The land is scorched and rust colored. A bloated fish gasps on the shore. The painting is of a jumbled panicked populace surrounded by almost quaint little scenes of victims stuck in torture contraptions, and coffins sinking into the mud in the surrounding fields. It looks like the cursed forecast of what we can expect if the stores run out of medical masks, or you are stuck in an airplane full of coughing aliens.

Not enough is known about Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the artist from the Netherlands who worked in the 1500’s. No one knows his birth date, but the time he was registered in an art guild (1551) to his death (1669) he executed 40 paintings and 60 prints. This particular painting is hung at the Prado Museum in Madrid.

In The Triumph of Death, the hysteria is loud and panoramic. Men, women, babies, the rich, the poor, the laborer, the gamblers, soldiers, monks, and kings, are all tormented and terrified. Skeletons arrive in massive numbers and outnumber the living. They arrive on boats and by horseback. They interrupt meals, disrupt commerce and dismantle forts. They amass an army, creating a wall of coffin-shaped shields.  They pull wagons piled high with skulls, trampling over victims, and herding crowds into a large dark door: a death trap in the side of a hill. They wield long slivered scythes and blow on trumpets, even drumming percussion with bones. A woman, face down, cradles her baby while dogs eat it’s face. A man is hung with his pants down. A bewildered king is taunted by a skeleton holding up an empty hour-glass.

Everyone in the painting is in the throes of death except for two young lovers in the lower right corner. They are seemingly oblivious and feeling immortal as they play music and read. But, behind them, a skeleton has picked up an instrument and is playing along.
On a barren hill to the left, two skeletons ring a large black bell.

Painted during a time when northern Europe was rocked by pandemics, reeling under the ruling religious wars, and leery of the inventive fury of the Inquisition, pictures such as this were called “moral paintings” because they were warnings to live right. No one was/is immune to death. Washing hands hadn’t caught on and religion, literally, could kill.

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