Chapter Three


Reflecting upon one’s mortality, sense of anxiety and uncertainty throughout the late medieval period was given powerful expression through symbolic art forms, namely through ‘memento mori’ with perhaps the most visually expressed image being that found in the ‘Dance of Death’ (danse macabre).  Summarised by H.R. Loyn, the ‘danse macabre’ is a:

“Manifestations of extreme religious hysteria connected with penitential processions. It was associated in origin with morality plays and poems treating of the inevitability of death and call to penitence” (26).

In its most simplistic form, the ‘Dance of Death’ is a procession or dance in which both the living and dead take part. It is generally accepted that its fully developed form first appeared as a mural painting in the cloisters of The Innocents in Paris, circa 1424 -1425.  By the late 15th century, numerous other versions appeared in both murals and printed books. To medieval art historian Paul Binksi, its theme is simple:

“the living, regardless of their temporal or spiritual station in life as popes, emperors or kings down to the very humblest, even children, are compelled by dancing cadavers to cavort with them as a memento mori” (27)

Often accompanied by didactic verses (28) the ‘Dance of Death’ is a call to penitence. The message was aimed at all in society by the fact that status, class and wealth are represented, emphasising death as a leveling force that transcends social distinction and classes.  A similar theme predating the 15th century is told in the legend of ‘The Three Living and The Three Dead’, however, unlike the ‘Dance of Death’ which features as many as forty one figures (29), the ‘Legend’ selectively concentrates on a small social group, which in the case of the first ‘Legend’ is represented by three noblemen – a duke, a count and the son of a king.  Derived from 13th century French poetry, the ‘Legend’ is a story about how three corpses meet three living persons, who are terrified at their decaying state (30). A dialogue follows in which the three living express mortification, while the three dead in turn, tell them to mend their ways, and contemplate the transience and essential baseness of the human condition (31).

It has been suggested that the first ‘Legend’ probably formed the original inspiration for the ‘Dance of Death’ some two centuries later.  J M Clark points out ‘both have didactic prologues, the dead confront the living, there is division into classes, though on a very different scale’ (32).  Although it is clear that the ‘Dance of Death’ and the ‘Legend’ reflect similar characteristics which suggest the former was partly inspired by the latter, the central differences between them are notable.  In the ‘Legend’ story, the living represent a state in which they are allowed a choice to repent and amend their lives.  No such choice is granted in the ‘Dance of Death’ procession where ‘the living are stripped of choice and are compelled into submission’ (33). The same grim fate is true of Bruegel’s ‘Triumph of Death’, only here, the characters are not skipping and tottering gingerly along with death in the form of a dance or procession:

“It is pointless to draws one’s sword against Death or to hide from him under the table, love songs are as useless as card games and earthly goods. Bruegel has portrayed the end of life in brutal fashion, it is never peaceful, always violent” (35)
(fig 13)

Whilst many examples of ‘danse macabre’ imagery can be found in both Italy and Spain, it is reasonable to suggest that the origins of the formed concept derived from medieval France and remained primarily popular throughout Northern Europe (36).  Although one could argue and reference the clear differences between North – South European styles, Italian representations of death in the 15th century are perhaps not too dissimilar to that found in the Northern regions.  However, it is often alluded to that forms of death represented in Italy in comparison to those found north of the Alps seem to ‘lack allegorical and universal force’ (37).

Whilst it would be reasonable to suggest that Bruegel’s own depiction of death has tenuous links with Italian frescoes, the overall conception of his work is undoubtedly in keeping with Northern traditions. Unlike, what has been viewed as the ‘quiet realism south of the Alps via Italy’, Northern art appears to reflect a much grimmer realism (38).  An example of this can be found in Hans Baldung Grien’s ‘Death and the Ages of Women’ circa 1541 – 1544 (fig 4).  Like all arts forms, there are exceptions, such as the conviction and realism of Michelangelo’s ‘Last Judgement’ fresco in the Sistine Chapel, Rome circa 1536 – 1541.  Other examples of Italian fresco painting which convey something of the same spirit found in Northern art can be found in the ‘Triumph of Death’ at Camposanto, at Pisa (fig 5).  Often linked to Bruegel’s own work (39) and best conveyed by Bellosi:

“The Triumph of Death constitutes the most complex representation of this iconographic theme, combining the tradition motif of the Three Living and Three Dead, with an image of Death flying over a pile of corpses towards a group of reveling youths and maidens; depicted in the sky is a battle between angels and devils over the possession of souls” (40)

To an extent, the gruesome realism of Bruegel’s own work is a reflection of the centuries proceeding the time in which he lived.  The ‘horror of rotting flesh, and the sudden, unpredictable coming of death’ were everywhere to be seen in late medieval art (41)  Bruegel would certainly have had the opportunity to view the likes of the ‘Triumph of Death’ at Pisa (42) during his grand tour of Italy between circa 1551 – 1554.   Whilst some question whether his travels took his as far south as Palermo, Sicily, some art historians have suggested that the image of death, riding on a ravenous charger found in the ‘Triumph of Death’ fresco at the Palazzo Sclanfani, Palermo (fig 6), may have provided Bruegel with a model for his version (fig 7 – footnote 43)

It is reasonable to assume that death in the later middle-ages was regarded very differently to how we view it today. Apart from the basic fact that on average most went to their graves much earlier than most of us today, death was viewed with a greater sense of anxiety through fear of war, famine, persecution, but perhaps even more menacing, through the frequent, unforeseen plagues.

Venerable Bede’s ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’ written in the early 8th century makes clear that plague was nothing new to Western Europe (44), however, the  pandemic spread of the so called ‘Black Death’ in circa 1348 – 1349 was particularly devastating and strongly etched in the minds of the generations that followed. Successive widespread waves of bubonic plagues in 1362, l374, 1389 and 1400, so severely decimated population levels that the very fabric of social, religious, economic and political society were thrown into turmoil across many parts of Europe (45).  Thereafter, lesser endemic plagues continued to assault the living with sudden and devastating results, until the late 17th century (46).

This ability to take life suddenly, whatever the age, sex, creed, or religious affiliation seems certainly apparent in Bruegel’s work and like the nature of plague itself, death is ultimately triumphant.  Interpretations of the “Black Death” at the time range from corrupted foul air to planetary changes, however, there was a commonly held belief that God was punishing man before the ‘Day of Judgement’ for its lax and corrupt ways (47).

Belief in the ‘Last Judgement’ was at the very core of Christian doctrine and its message to society.  Whether literate or not, most Christians were aware of the four ‘Last Things’ – Death, Judgement, Hell and Heaven.  Bruegel’s painting is not only a Northern ‘Dance of Death’ synthesised with the Italian ‘Triumph of Death’ but a kind of ‘Last Judgement’, only here, there are no offerings of redemption, humanity’s fate and destination are sealed.

In many respects, he reflects a final solution, as pessimistic and unforgiving as a Boschian hell scene (fig 8).  Regardless of all the pleas of mercy, no one escapes the inevitable onslaught of death’s final battle. Unlike, the Christian vision of the ‘Last Judgement’ which allows the hope of being rewarded a place in heaven alongside saints and heroes, the ‘Triumph of Death’ reflects an apocalyptic doomsday scenario in which no hope and no mercy are shown. A similar message comes across in Holbein’s ‘Dance of Death’ series where ‘the living are stripped of choice and are compelled into submission’ (48)

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