I first saw the famous Bruegel painting on the cover of Black Sabbath’s Greatest hits.
The album cover showed some details, but also listed the artist so I was able to seek it out later. There is so much to take in.
The people being herded into a church, which of course is just a trap:
The bizarre detail that the dead soldiers are looting and rapine, not just killing:
Back in the distance we see evidence of more battles and slaughter:
And gruesome reminders of death at hands of civil society, with a decapitation and evidence of many poor souls broken on the wheel:There are hideously brutal descriptions of “breaking on the wheel” if you have the stomach for it, in history books. (The Wikipedia entry linked above is actually fairly tame!) Ironically most people think of iron maidens and the pear of anguish and that sort of thing, which probably existed only as enlightenment era museum displays. Real medieval torture was a bit less gothic, but still a barbarous prelude to the execution. (Most of the tortures used back then would ultimately be fatal even if the victim was not hung, beheaded, or burned at the climax.) Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun is a fascinating study of a real witch hunt and trial, and the description there of the torture undergone by a character is similarly terrible.
Anyway the Triumph of Death was a fairly common theme for late medieval artists, like the memento mori, intended to remind us of our mortality and that death conquers all.
I’ve often thought Bruegel’s painting could be an awesome basis for a diorama, but never had the energy to really plan it out. Minifigs made a cart with skeletons “recruiters” that looks an awful lot like the one in the lower left of the image above.
You can get a recast here (I probably will some day — if only for the skeleton lantern bearer…there’s a hireling for you!).
Anyway Bruegel always leads me to Bosch, the much more famous proto-surrealist. Check out this site devoted to these two medieval artists.
And these amazing figurines (alas, too large a scale!) based on Bosch and Bruegel’s demons.
UPDATE: I just realized the big picture above cuts off the left margin of the this painting. Here’s another, smaller version which is more intact, showing the dying king in the lower left corner more clearly.