THE EARLY SIXTEENTH CENTURY
The historical background to the Netherlands in the first half of the 16th century are to an extent, coloured by political and religious events. Whilst the economical developments, namely trading, played a vital role in the urban life of Netherlandish people, the once great trading centres of Ghent and Bruges were in decline by the time of Bruegel’s birth in circa 1525 / 30 (6). Antwerp City (Belgium) on the other hand than, which became home to Bruegel for over twenty years, had by the mid -16th century become one of the richest trading cities in the world (7).
In what was then an ‘age of discovery and exploration’ to Western Europeans, the dividends from Spain and Portugal’s exploits across the Atlantic to the Americas, where ancient empires were conquered and exploited for their riches in the so called ‘New World’, were undoubtedly to the benefit of Antwerp and other Lowland trading cities. Antwerp’s well established trading connections with both northern and southern European countries, gave the city something of a cosmopolitan feel. Bruegel himself reflects this cosmopolitan atmosphere in the ‘Triumph of Death’ by including people of different ethnic origins.
Politically, the Netherlands had been lands of the Dukes of Burgundy during the 15th and early 16th centuries, however, by the mid -16th century, the lands had become a colony of the Holy Roman Empire under the Emperor Charles V, who was also the King of Spain. When he passed the Netherlands to his staunchly Catholic son, Philip II in 1555 as part inheritance, it was not long after his father’s death in 1559 that Philip II stamped his authority on it through his half sister Margaret of Parma and Cardinal Granville. With State and Church strongly united under a staunchly Catholic Spanish monarch, the Netherlands were repeatedly subjected to the militant Spanish Inquisition, who were keen to suppress and purge the growth of Protestantism, which was borne out of the Reformation movement some years early.
The ‘Reformation’ of the Western Church in the early 16th century, was undoubtedly a time when great extremes were expressed. Often fanatical and radical, and at the very least progressive, the Netherlands was one of many countries that experienced the turmoil of change and religious affiliation. The ‘Reformation’ was principally ignited by Martin Luther, a German monk from Wittenburg in 1517 following a century of disillusionment with Catholic leadership of the Western Church. As Lutherian ideas gained support in Northern Europe, the Catholic Church became divided, giving birth to the Protestant faith. As fundamental questions concerning doctrines and correct practices of the Christian faith intensified, the Protestant faith itself began to fragment, further adding to zealous dissident groups such as the Anabaptists and Calvinists, who had established their own style of worship and Church in the Swiss city state of Geneva in the 1550’s (8).
The Anabaptists were not strictly Protestant or Catholic but the fact remains, both religious groups brought widespread agitation to the Netherlands region. Firstly by the Anabaptists in the l530’s and secondly, by the Calvinists in the l560’s. These forms of religious militancy resulted in numerous revolts and conflicts which in turn led to widespread massacres and public executions.
Whether, condemnatory or just an inclusion of reality, Bruegel has left us a detailed record of these horrors, not only in the various background scenes throughout the ‘Triumph of Death’ but there is further evidence in many of his other works from the 1520’s to the so called ‘Age of Bruegel’ throughout the 1550’s and 1560’s. It would be fair to say that Northern Europe was awash with both political and religious wars during this period. The climax of rebellion against Spanish rule and enforced Catholicism in the Netherlands reached a high point in the years following 1566. Philip’s intolerance to his northern colony and his failure to maintain a firm grip of the Netherlands through Margaret of Parma, exploded into open rebellion in 1566 when Calvinist iconoclasm violently erupted destroying:
“religious images in Catholic churches, using spars and axes to pull statues of saints from their pedestals and tore altar paintings to pieces. For them, worshiping material images was nothing less than idolatry. What the Calvinists regarded as struggle for the true faith amounted to rebellion in Philip’s eyes, and he therefore dispatched Alba as his commander” (10)
Duke Alba’s arrival in Netherlands in 1567, saw him not only brutally round up and crush all known rebels by liquidation, but he was also specifically commissioned by Philip II to institute a rigorous program against heresy and political unrest. Better known as the Spanish Inquisition, a special court was set up, nicknamed the ‘Blood Council”. Duke Alba’s increasing reign of terror in 1568 saw even the execution of Netherlandish nobles who were partisan to resistance (11)
When Bruegel died in 1569, it would be fair state that religious and national repression was at its zenith (12). Given the extreme amount of violence and murder in this period, it is no wonder that Peter Then believes that the “Triumph of Death contains a concealed meaning distinct from and yet related to its apparent subject” (13) However, as the ‘Triumph of Death’ is believed to have been painted circa 1562 (14), Thon’s theory, which is based upon the later date of 1568 and so called “crucial period of Netherlandish history” can only be sustained on that premise. That said, Thon’s theory is certainly thought provoking and will form the main discussion of chapter seven.
Whether, it can be convincingly argued that the ‘Triumph of Death’ reflects Bruegel’s personal stance as a social observer that is either aloof, detached, critical, heretical or just traditional, remains to be assessed in the following chapters. However, it would be reasonable to surmise that the realism captured in Bruegel’s complex masterpiece does reflect something of the reality in terms of the religious and political atmosphere that existed. The fact that several of Bruegel’s other works includes graphic scenes of torture and executions being performed is perhaps a testament to the violent age in which he lived, which we now call the 16th century (15)