Chapter Seven

POLITICAL AND RELIGIOUS ASPECTS

The artistic sources that Bruegel may have used as models for the ‘Triumph of Death’
have been consistently emphasised throughout this paper. However, as the last
paragraph in the previous chapter stressed, in order to fully appreciate the meaning
behind the nature of his work, it is necessary to explore the possible religious and
political aspects (76)

As mentioned in Chapter One, the executions that are represented in the
‘Triumph of Death’ are to a certain extent, a true reflection of the Netherlands at this
time, which was being purged and persecuted by the Spanish Inquisition under the
stern rule of Philip II – the King of Spain. As early as 1559, four years after receiving
the Netherlands from his father, Charles V, Philip ll appointed his half-sister,
Margaret of Parma as Regent with ‘the job of persecuting heretics’ (77). The tyrannical
nature of the ‘Inquisition’ which in truth, persecuted any opposition to Spanish rule,
fueled arguments for possible religious and political meanings in the ‘Triumph of
Death’.

Although it is not clear whether Bruegel was anti-Spanish or anti-Catholic, it is
suggested by some that his paintings contain overt messages which do point to such a
belief (78)  G Martin believes that his attitude towards religion was:

“likely to have been similar to that earlier adopted by Erasmus, and to
have been inspired by the Christian humanist ethic of the Antwerp poet and
engraver, Dierick Coornhert. The Libertinist movement, ignored by
officialdom, taught a message of salvation dependent on the individual’s
attitude to God, exclusive of religious ceremony”

Such debatable questions will form the nature of the following discussion,
focusing on Peter Thon’s belief that ‘the Triumph of Death contains a more
clandestine meaning beyond the obvious and traditional implications of the title’ (80)
However, it cannot be stressed enough that Thon’s theory is based on Delevoy’s
suggestion that the ‘Triumph of Death’ was painted in the late 1560‘s as opposed to
the traditional belief that it was executed around circa 1562 (81).

Unlike, a good majority of Bruegel’s painted works, the ‘Triumph of Death’ is
neither signed or dated, therefore, attempts to date such a painting have been argued
on stylistic grounds. Peter Thon’s article of 1968 – ‘Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death
Reconsidered’, briefly covers this debate which runs as follows (82)  Arguments for an
earlier date of circa 1561-1562 is based on de Tolnay’s theory that the ‘Triumph of Death’ is closely similar stylistically to the ‘Fall of the Rebel Angels’ which is signed and dated
1562 (fig 20). De Tolnay forms his theory on three main points – Firstly, there
is a similar colour scheme used, secondly, there are spatial similarities and thirdly, it has
compositional affinities to the ‘Fall of the Rebel Angels’.

Unconvinced by this argument, Thon considers Delevoy’s rejection of an earlier
date in favour of a later date as a more persuasive argument. Delevoy believes that
theories such as De Tolnay’s ignores the crowded Boschian disarray of the 1562 work
(Fall of the Rebel Angels) to the spatial organisational clarity in the ‘Triumph of Death’ as found in such works as ‘The Conversion of St Paul’ dated 1567 (83) Despite these attempts, as Thon points out, the stylistic arguments thus at least
cancel each other out, and the dating problem remains to be resolved – if at all – on
other grounds (84)  Nevertheless, following circa 1568 of Delevoy Peter Thon
uses this date in his article to raise several important considerations concerning the
contemporary religious and political events, namely the years 1567 and 1568 in
which brutal assertion of Spanish tyranny is achieved through the Kings general, the
Duke of Alba.

To the people of the Netherlands, these years were to be the start of a long war
against the brutal and bloody yoke of Spanish rule. As previously mentioned in
chapter one, the Netherlands had formed part of the ‘Holy Roman Empire’ under
Charles V, who subsequently passed the lands to his son – Philip II in 1555.
However, Philip II wanted to rule the Netherlands as conquered territory, whereas,
under Charles V, they were generally treated with more respect and were given a
greater degree of self-autonomy and self-government.  Philip II’s reign ushered in the
complete reverse, ruling with an iron fist, needless to say, conflicting interest soon
ignited what was already a volatile situation.

Philip II as the Netherlands new overlord not only replaced most of the native
ruling classes with his own personal appointments, but also created new bishoprics, again personally appointing his own choice. This in effect ‘alienated local nobility and incumbent bishops’ (85). Furthermore, with all personally appointed positions of power now in place, the State and the Church could serve Philip II as a powerful force in the Netherlands. At its head was Cardinal Granvelle which as Zupnick points out ‘became symbolic of this unholy union, as head of the Council of State, as Cardinal and Primate of the Netherlands, and as Chief Inquisitor’ (86).  Such was the opposition to his power and rule, he was recalled back to Spain in 1564  leaving Margaret of Parma to ‘mollify the Netherlanders’ and to rule in something of alliance with the old order, however, two years later, Philip II’s failure to maintain a firm grip of the Netherlands through Margaret, who in truth was no more than a figure head, was soon apparent when the situation exploded in 1566, with the open rebellion of Calvinist iconoclasm.

As discussed in Chapter One, 1567 and 1568 saw the arrival of the Duke of Alba who soon set about crushing all known rebellion. The many reprisals and massacres that followed his arrival were notorious and are suggested by Peter Thon’s
articles to be possibly disguised by Bruegel ‘using the traditional theme and motifs of
the Triumph of Death as a vehicle for surreptitious political criticism’ (87), Thon
suggests that the army of death in Bruegel’s work could in fact symbolise the
merciless soldiers of Alba’s bloody regime whose killing and slaughter were
notoriously brutal and horrifying in these years (88).

Peter Thon, implies that the various details in the ‘Triumph of Death’ suggest
that it was “Bruegel” s bitter indictment of the Spanish Inquisition in the Netherlands”
(89). Apart from the obvious instruments of execution, a highly ornate cross seen far in
the background beneath a funeral procession appears reminiscent of the “sort
favoured by Catholic Spaniards” (90). The figure of death in the foreground who
rummages through a barrel of gold could be a “veiled reference to the reputed
mercenary and plundering character of Spanish troops” (91)  The convincing proposition
that the battalions of death seen in the ‘Triumph of Death’ could possibly represent
Alba’s army in the guise of death itself, comes as no surprise when one considers the
military nature of this work.

Thon’s convincing article, does raise a number of well argued points and hypothetical questions, which does suggest a political and religious interpretation in the “crucial period of Netherlandish history”. However, the belief of many is that it was in fact painted in the year circa 1562 and not the later date of circa 1568 – 1569. The stylistic affiliations with the Boschian work of 1562 suggested by de Tolnay – namely ‘The Fall of the Rebel Angels’ does suggest that it was painted in that year and not the later date. Furthermore, as nearly the majority of surviving works from 1562 onwards are dated and signed and appear to have little, if any Boschian influence on a scale of the works painted before this year, the likelihood of Bruegel returning to a macabre theme with Boschian influence six years after producing nothing does seem unlikely. Nevertheless, Thon’s article does raise some interesting and stimulating thoughts, moreover, it provides an alternative interpretation. However, the view of Gibson seem more likely the political
interpretation for the ‘Triumph of Death’

“Bruegel presents death not so much as the punishment for specific human sins
and follies, but as the destiny of all men, regardless of piety, social rank or wealth.
Bruegel surely intended a biting indictment of war, for no matter who wins, death is
the ultimate victor, it was a lesson, alas, that the sixteenth century too often forgot” (93)

This is further suggested by the numerous other works of Bruegel that include
scenes that feature armies. The fact that religious and political warfare were a
familiar aspect to Europe in the 16th century comes as no surprise to find it was
represented in several of Bruegel’s earlier works before the ‘Triumph of Death’.  The series of ‘Virtues’ which were drawn between 1559-60 provide two
examples. In the virtue of ‘Justice’ 1559 (fig 2), the figure of ‘Justice’ herself is
surrounded by soldiers “hinting that this is her chief authority” (94).  The virtue of
‘Justice’ may have even been something of an earlier model for the ‘Triumph of
Death’ which illustrates all the contemporary instruments of torture in which justice
was administered. In the virtue of ‘Fortitude’ 1560, a “well-organised armoured
cavalry charges to relieve a beleaguered moated castle” can be seen in the
background” (95)

The fact that other works before and in the same year as ‘Triumph of Death’
(ca.1562) contain military scenes such as: ‘Elck’ (1558) ‘Dulle Griet’ (1562) and ‘Suicide of Saul’ (1562), could as Gibson implies be no more than Bruegel’s “biting
indictment of war, for no matter who wins, death is the ultimate victor” (96).

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