In 1562, or not long after, Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted THE TRIUMPH OF DEATH. Like most of his large paintings, it was done in oils on wood panels. It isn’t known for whom the work was done. Two centuries later it was hanging in the palace of the Queen of Spain. Today, recently restored, it resides at the Prado, in Madrid. It is both a landscape painting and a memento mori – a reminder of mortality, like the skull which often decorates a painted saint’s hovel, or profound individual’s desk.
But it is more than that. Bruegel had painted landscapes, crowd scenes, and grisly battles before. There was a tradition of “Last Judgement” paintings, in which the dead rose from their graves, the city burned, and Jesus hovered above, in glory. THE TRIUMPH OF DEATH refers to all these things, yet remains strangely original, and unique. Yes, skeletons rampage across the land, slaughtering the living, and cities burn on the horizon. But there is no God in judgement, condemning the bad and calling the good to join Him and his Angels. In Bosch’s triptych, THE LAST JUDGEMENT, the deity appears in two out of the three panels, in bubbles of beatific beauty. He is entirely absent here. This Final Battle is a secular nightmare: death for all, and no exceptions. In its brutal secularity it resembles Bruegel’s SUICIDE OF SAUL, also painted in 1562. The horrors of Spain’s war against the Netherlands may have influenced both paintings.
Bruegel’s wife Mayken gave birth to two boys, Pieter, in 1564, and Jan, in 1568. He died the following year, aged around 40. Both sons became painters. In 1597 (or possibly later) Jan painted a copy of THE TRIUMPH OF DEATH. This passed within a hundred years into the collection of Prince Eggenberg of Austria, and it can be seen in his castle in Graz, today. There is a second copy, probably by Jan, and a third, by Pieter the Younger, both in private collections, invisible to us.
Last September I was invited to screen two pictures at the Film Archiv in Vienna, and took the train to Graz, to see the son’s version of his father’s painting. It is to the two visible TRIUMPHS (one in Madrid, one in Graz) – their strong similarity, and their multiplicity of differences – that I now turn. For Jan Brueghel’s painting is structurally almost identical to his father’s, and different in almost every single detail: like a film re-made, shot-by-shot, with different actors, costumes, and visual effects. Most interesting of all, while Bruegel the Elder’s painting is seen from no one’s point of view, Jan Brueghel’s TRIUMPH provides one horrified spectator.
Both paintings can be divided rather neatly into nine grid-sections. The central section features a skeleton on horseback, wielding an enormous scythe. Behind him, an army of skeletons approaches, and demons drive a wheeled, blazing box.
In the section immediately below this, humans attempt resistance, but fall victim to knives, axes, swords and scythes.
The bottom left section contains perhaps the richest images: a dying monarch, skeletons seizing money, supporting a priest, and riding a death-cart over living humans while playing music.
In the section above this, humans are drowned in a stagnant pond, and skeletons in shrouds blow trumpets.
The upper left section shows skeletons ringing bells and digging up a coffin. The distant horizon glows with red and black smoke.
In the upper central section, ships are wrecked, skeletons surround a church, and a mass of humans, wielding pikes, ladders and improvised weapons, is caught in a pincer movement by death’s cavalry and infantry.
In the upper right, dead bodies hang from trees and wheels. Skeletons lynch one man and prepare to decapitate a praying victim.
Immediately below, another skeleton army drives men and women into long, coffin-like box. On the roof of the box, three skeletons bang drums and hold the door open.
Finally, in the bottom right section, diners are interrupted at their table. A gallant prepares to draw his sword, a skeleton seizes a woman, another presents a skull on a silver plate. Two lovers in the corner play the lute and sing. A skeleton accompanies them with his violin.
All these elements exist in both paintings. But they exist in very different ways. I’ll begin at the left, and make the observation that the copy is slightly larger than the original, and the difference is visible here. Bruegel the Elder’s painting is 117 by 162 cm. His son’s copy is 119 by 164 cm. The copy has a couple of centimeters more sky, and two additional centimeters on the left – so that we see the knee of the skeleton supporting the king, and the entire blasted trunk from which the bells are rung, plus another tree, immediately adjacent – all missing in the older painting, as it now exists. The additional two centimeters make all these visual aspects more pleasing (even an illustration of horrific events can observe the norms of good illustration), so I believe that the original TRIUMPH OF DEATH was “cut down” to fit a particular frame at some point – just as the boards of his TOWER OF BABEL lost 4 cm of height and 8 cm of width at the behest of unknown philistines…
Now, to the changes in Jan’s remake —
Let us start with the most finely-adorned of all the characters: the king. In both paintings he wears a full suit of armor, over which he sports a crown, an ermine collar and a long robe – red in the original, yellow in the copy. The skeleton supporting him holds an hour glass, but in neither painting does the king notice it: dying, his gaze is focused not on the scene, but on the viewer. To his right, a skeleton dips bony fingers into a barrel of gold and silver coins. In the Elder’s version, this fellow wears a rough tunic and some basic armour – a common soldier. In Jan’s, he is naked save for gold chains and a kingly crown. This greedy skeleton also has access to more stuff than in the original – in addition to three barrels of coins, he finds gold and silver jugs, and jewelry. Each painter has taken the same character and made him something different, in class, in style, in aspirations.
To the right of the money is the most visually vivid difference between the two works: a skeleton clutching a red-robed cardinal – in the original painting, a priest in a blue- green robe. To emphasize the death-bringer’s personalized service, in both paintings he sports a matching hat. Immediately behind this little group passes the death cart, full of skulls. One skeleton rides aboard it, playing the hurdy-gurdy (in the original he appears to be wearing a WW2-era soldier’s helmet, something missing from the copy); a colleague, riding sidesaddle on a wizened, starving horse, holds a lamp and rings a bell. Between them sits a raven; below them, people are crushed beneath the wheels.
Noteworthy here and throughout is the bodily difference between Pieter’s and Jan’s skeletons: the former are usually covered with a residue of dessicated skin, while the latter are pure skeletal goodness (interestingly, sporting an additional pair of ribs).
A figure beneath the horse’s hooves wears brown-red in the first painting, gray in the second: a woman, cutting a thread with shears. Is she Atropos, the third Fate? How many more mythical/religious symbols are there in this bedlam?
Beyond the cart is the pond, or moat, where people are being drowned. The two versions are substantially similar, though here – as everywhere – colour and details of costumes change. A little bridge across the pond leads to what seems to be a mausoleum, where shrouded skeletons are gathered, sounding horns. In the original these characters are boldly painted, and the millstone around the neck of a human victim is very evident. In the copy, they are more sketchy: Jan provides less detail as the scene gets further from our eye. And Jan’s skeletons are noticeably fewer: some fourteen, as opposed to 24 or more – as if the remake couldn’t afford the extras, or the artist sufficient time. This is a pattern which repeats throughout the copy, as we shall see. In the original, a clock or sundial on the mausoleum wall is breached by a skeleton, pointing downward to the number one. In the copy, this skeleton points upward, to the number twelve.
The top left corner of the copy is greatly improved by the uncut visual of the blasted tree, and a better profile of the skeleton graverobber. But the horizon beyond the bells is quite different: a gray-green range of hills, overhung by storm clouds. No cities burn in Jan’s painting.
To the right, the skeleton cavalry emerges from a hillside, to engage the peasant army. In Jan’s copy they are few, sketchily drawn. In Pieter’s original there are dozens of skeleton riders, armed with javelins.
The upper centre of depicts the fate of the human horde. In Pieter’s, they are trapped by a wave of skeletons, surging up a curved road from the sea. In Jan’s, the wave is absent: maybe the men will get away! There’s no hope for them in the original, where the road ends at at a church on a barren hilltop, surrounded by scores of horn-blowing skeletons. Elsewhere among the hills, three black skeletons with javelins pursue a running man, graves are opened, and three of death’s agents pause to admire the sea view, with its sinking ships, and blazing wharves. The same three skeletons are present in Jan’s painting: white against a black sea. But Jan’s long view is less apocalyptic – a mere handful of skeletons surrounds the church, only one ship is sinking, and several sails are visible on the horizon. Jan also invents a flock of crows, gathered above his father’s pit of animal bones…
In Jan’s copy, the upper-right sky is storm dark, and its scenes of death and mayhem are if anything grimmer than those in the surreal landscape of his father. Skeletons rush several extra victims towards the gallows here. A black skeleton, almost invisible against the sky, prepares to behead a praying man. Both paintings depict the coffin-shaped box in the same way: an open maw into which terrified people are driven. One naked figure in the original has been clothed by Jan.
The scythe-wielding skeleton is the centrepiece of both paintings, but the demonic hell-box which follows it is quite different. Pieter’s burns more brightly, and is more face-like. It is clearly mobile, advancing on studded wheels. Crows fly out of it (the crows which have alighted on the barren field, in Jan’s painting?) The fires of Jan’s hell-box are darker, and its wheels are almost invisible. It is attended by more demons. To the right of the box, two skeletons catch half a dozen humans in a net. In the copy, they are all white men, two with faces clearly visible. In the original, three of the struggling men are black; a fourth, oddly enough, strongly resembles the English Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.
In front of the net, in the right central section, two skeletons drag a wheeled coffin, containing a dead woman and a dead baby, over a shrouded corpse. In Pieter’s version, the skeletons wear brown habits, like a friar’s. In Jan’s their robes are funeral black.
Nearby, cripples and priests are murdered by the skeletons. In Jan’s painting one skeleton actually draws blood from his human victim. Which brings us to the lower right corner, which in both paintings contains the most poignant scenes.
Here a table has been laid (minimally, with bread and crackers, by Pieter; richly, with meats and pies, by Jan) and the surprised humans have only just become aware of their predicament. A man in fool’s motley tries to hide under the table. Two women attempt to flee: one of the skeletons who detains them wears a fool’s outfit, as well. A young man prepares to draw his sword in vain resistance: in Pieter’s painting his hair is long and dark, in Jan’s it’s short, and blond. Jan’s swordsman looks a little older and is more finely dressed, like his companions: perhaps the changing fashions of the times?
In neither painting does the female lover see the skeleton army: her eyes are on the book (music? The lyrics of a song?) which she and her lute-playing companion share. In Pieter’s painting the lute player has just noticed their personal skeleton, accompanying them on its violin. In Jan’s painting he hasn’t noticed their awful companion yet. In the original, this man is clean-shaven. His mouth is open, his expression one of horror. In the copy, he’s still relaxed, sporting a fine mustache and goatee (it’s been suggested that the model for the lute player was Peter Paul Rubens, though this would date the painting later than 1600).
The musical couple are the last individuals to appear, as we scan Bruegel the Elder’s TRIUMPH OF DEATH. In his son’s copy, there is one additional character. At the foot of his mistress is a little dog, who apprehends, with concern, the entire scene.