The triumph of death

Click to embiggen. This pic is pretty big, and swarming with detail.

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:

As well as the hopeless looking guy above, who is drawing a long sword.

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.

UPDATE 2: I did acquire the “Skeleton recruiting party”: see the pics here and here.

Published in: on April 15, 2010 at 10:55 am  Comments (10)  
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10 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Ah, Valley of the Four Winds. Classic stuff.

    If you can dig up the VotFW hex-and-counter wargame, though, I’ll crown you a geek among men.

  2. there’s no theoretical reason a company couldn’t cast in-scale replicas (assuming they don’t want gargantuan busch demons) there’s no copyright.

    somebody should get on that.

    • Now that I look more closely the “tree man with details” may actually be about 25mm scale. $130 is a little steep though.
      I sure wish I knew someone with some kind of contacts with a figure company though, maybe a good one like Reaper. But I just can’t think of anyone who have any contacts or pull with those guys. 🙂 Certainly not, say, an artist who uses their stuff on a show or anything. So I just wouldn’t know where to start.

  3. Good Job, Mr. M,

    Black Sabbath, History, Wikipedia, Huxley, Minifigs, Bosch, and that incredible link to those figurines! I can’t believe you crammed so much goodness into it!

    My brain is overwhelmed…

    Exquisite post, Mike.

    • Thanks! Next week I’ll have to post something about the myth of Icarus, the Bruegel painting of his fall, the W.H. Auden poem about that painting, and the Iron Maiden song “Flight of Icarus,” (which seems to be largely a riff on the poem), that Borges story about the old man with wings who falls out of the sky, and some angel figures Heritage made for Knights & Magick, which look like they are falling… six degrees of dorkery. This shit writes itself. 🙂

      It’s kind of weird that the Sabbath album cover is reversed. I was trying to figure out what was wrong with the thumbnail.
      BTW while I was looking for a big image online I discovered that Bruegel the Younger made copies of most (all) the Elder’s paintings, and they aren’t too bad.

  4. Thank you for this.
    My theory on the Sabbath cover: By flipping the image, we get the dark area in the sky behind the text in the upper RH corner… plus the little bell right next to the text (a noise/music/doom reference). I suspect that it was a good call on the designer’s part since now all of the hordes of skeletons and damned appear to be marching left to right, leading us all back tot he title and that little bell in the upper LH corner.
    Breugel is an art god.

    • That sounds pretty convincing!

  5. […] and teaching about designing games. I also told Mark Morrison about Sword & Dowkery’s blog post on Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death and lead/tin miniature figures based on the skeleton party in the […]

  6. […] always like the Bruegel painting “The triumph of death.” I was pretty happy to find some miniatures clearly based on the design there, and […]

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