Here’s a picture which stretches the definition of ‘nice’ to breaking point - the biggest ‘f--- you’ in art history, Bruegel’s ‘Triumph of Death’ (1562).
It’s a large panel populated by a vast army of skeletons who maraude through a depressing arid landscape snuffing out the lives of all living humans they meet. A central skeleton on a bony horse swings a scythe, while to the right a skeletal phalanx (with coffin lids as shields) bears down on cowering people.
In the millpond on the left, people are drowned in the water, while to their right the skeletons gather more humans for the slaughter in a net.
Every inch of the canvas is covered in creepy details. A skeleton grabs a beautiful maiden suggestively around her middle.
A helpless man on the ground has his throat slit.
A man tries to clamber away over rocks, and is pulled back down by a skeleton who jumps out of a crevice.
On the horizon we see three traditional forms of capital punishment meted out on the humans; beheading, hanging and the breaking wheel.
In the right foreground we see symbols of life’s pleasures – musical instruments, a table with food and a gaming set tossed on the ground. Pleasure and distraction is futile in such an environment.
In the left foreground, meanwhile, a king is seized by the skeletons, one of whom holds a symbolic egg timer. The King’s gold and silver is no help to him now. Death has no regard for status or wealth or age.
Death seems to have an almost humorous character – the skeletons enjoy the process, actively mocking the living. A cardinal is seized by a skeleton wearing an identical hat.
Another skeleton, meanwhile, horrifies a lady by serving a skull on a platter onto the dinner table.
What are we supposed to make of this horrific maelstrom of violence? This is emphatically not a religious painting. It is not a Biblical Last Judgement, with a risen Christ dividing the world into sinners and the redeemed. Here there’s no hint of a Heaven, no redeemer and no suggestion that anyone’s good or pious deeds on earth can spare them this agony and terror.
Things have changed a lot since Bruegel’s time; in our wealthy Western existence we still face natural disasters, death and disease, but science has provided us with warning signs, with explanations, treatments and palliatives. If we fall ill, there is a place we can go where we stand a reasonably good chance of our ills being identified, explained to us and healed - our pain soothed with analgesia. In Bruegel’s world, however, pestilence war and famine was a capricious master, sweeping without hindrance across Europe in waves. The facts are eye-watering – famine and bubonic plague killed as much as half the entire population of Europe in the middle of the 14th century. In the 15th century the Hundred Years War, in combination with famine and plague is thought to have killed off two thirds of France’s population. A so-called Little Ice Age added insult to injury in the late Medieval period, leading to bitter winters and failed harvests. The average person in this period would be extremely lucky to celebrate their 30th birthday.How did a life lived under these circumstances really feel - when half the population perished in agony, and there wasn’t even space to bury their bodies? The uncertainty of this existence was expressed up by contemporary writer Boccaccio when he asked “how many valiant men, how many fair ladies, breakfast with their kinfolk and the same night sup with their ancestors in the next world!” The great plague was not understood by science and there was no cure. Religious fanatics in search for a cause led genocides against suspected minority groups - notably the Jewish communities, whose men, women and children were murdered in their thousands.
It is genocide, rather than than disease, which surely springs most readily to our modern minds when we look at this picture. The army of skeletons conjure images of the mass graves of Rwanda and Cambodia - and the most disturbing feature of the picture to a contemporary audience is the crowd of people being herded through an ominous trapdoor, which conjures thoughts of the gas chambers at Belsen and Auschwitz. Although death on this scale is unfamiliar to us in 21st century Britain, the picture still packs an uncomfortable punch because such horrors are still not so far away - and the universal truth of the picture hasn’t changed. Death will get us in the end.