"The Triumph of Death" by Pieter Breugel, 1526/1530-1569.
A Spanish museum stirs deep memories
Last week I was in Madrid, Spain for the first time in 43 years, when I took a ‘vacation’ from my doctoral research in England and Czechoslovakia to explore the Iberian peninsula.
I was anxious to revisit several sights in Madrid but none more than the Prado Museum, one of the great art museums of the world. In three days, I went there twice (in part thanks to half-price admission for seniors) and saw some of my favorite paintings as well as some I did not know about in advance.
There is a famous painting in the Prado by the 16th-century Flemish artist Pieter Breugel the Elder entitled “The Triumph of Death.” It shows the utter victory of death over all humanity, rich and poor, grand and lowly.
There are hundreds of skeletons marching or riding around and killing those still living. The figure of Death rides an emaciated horse and swings his scythe. One detail shows a beautiful naked woman looking at herself in the mirror while a figure representing death holds an hour glass over her head, numbering her days.
When I saw this painting at age 25, I was entertained. I probably chuckled as I pointed to some of the more grotesque elements of this painting. It did not move me or make me think. It was simply entertainment, perhaps even a break from seeing the many paintings of saints and of Jesus and Mary.
But last week, I was deeply moved by this painting, and it brought me to think a great deal about life and death and the world in which I live. I think, in addition to being nearer to death myself, there were two reasons I responded so differently in 2012 than in 1969.
First, we have been constantly fed images on television of death and destruction happening somewhere in the world. There was genocide in the Balkans and in Darfur and masacres in Somalia. Now we witness daily horrors in Syria.
However, there is a more immediate reason for my contemplation of the Breugel painting. Last summer I spent a day visiting sites near Phnom Penh, Cambodia that forced me to think about death, sites of the Killing Fields.
I walked through a prison/torture chamber that was created out of a high school in the city. It was filled with photos of those maimed and killed during the reign of terror of Pol Pot.
Then I actually went into one of the killing fields. As I walked around, I saw and listened to the story of death on a scale hardly imaginable, even to Pieter Breugel. I learned of soldiers tossing babies in the air for other soldiers to shoot as target practice. I saw pieces of clothing and bone that are found whenever someone digs in the area. And, in the center, was a monument to the dead containing more than 5,000 skulls. Some are at eye level, and it is clear from their condition that many were clubbed or shot to death.
When I looked at the Breugel painting last week, it was not in the least amusing. It was a powerful allegory. When I stood before the canvas, I did not think about its historical context but about the horror of it all.
Of course, we all face death, but death need not come to us violently nor must it be horrible. I was with my father when he died, and it was peaceful and natural. There is always a sense of loss but also a sense of a passage from a world of pain (a valley of tears, as life on earth has often been referred to) to peace, a release from suffering.
But the deaths in the painting were as unnatural as those in the Killing Fields of Cambodia. Since the purveyors of death in the painting were human skeletons, I felt like I was watching a moment of radical cruelty of humans to humans.
Certainly those soldiers of Pol Pot who shot babies in the air for fun were no more fully human than those skeletons in the painting.
In the painting, just about every figure was dead–the skeletons marching around and their victims. How must it have looked to someone taken to the Killing Fields, one whose only fault was being intellectual, wearing glasses, having soft hands? Surely they saw death and the morally dead people turning people into corpses.
It was easy to laugh at Breugel’s painting in 1969, although certainly that was a time of violence in Vietnam and other places. However, I was far away from the war and a rather self-absorbed graduate student.
But after staring into the eye sockets of so many crushed skulls in Cambodia, I can never be far from the awareness of events on earth that are horrifyingly similar to those that Breugel depicted.
Sometimes we imagine that unspeakable cruelty was a common thing of the past but that when it occurs in the modern world, it is an anachronism, an oddity.
Yet, after the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, the Killing Fields, Ethnic Cleansing, Darfur, Somalia, the Congo, and others, we have to come face to face with death and violence in our time, something that happened to me in a new way while standing before an old painting in a museum in Madrid.
We often think of objects in a museum as inert and static–an artifact is the same every time you see it. But it is more proper to think about each visit to a work of art as a conversation between the work and the viewer. Each time that conversation will be different because we the viewers are different.
Had I not been in Cambodia this summer, I would have had a different and less intense experience in front of the Breugel. What I say here about painting is of course true with other art forms–a piece of music, a poem, a novel, a film.
We should have conversations with works we have not before experienced, but we also need to go back to ‘old friends’ and have fresh encounters with them.