the opposite threaded through the most ordinary piece of human business


How deep is Bruegel’s pessimism? I guess the question is inseparable from that of his relation to Christianity. (He was no fool: the question is insoluble.) And from the issue of comedy. How much was horror played for laughs? Does laughter take the edge off things? Consider the Triumph of Death in Madrid. How common a subject was it in Bruegel’s time? And where does the title come from? Of course the basic idea stems from the world of late-medieval prints and wall painting—the last time I saw it, the painting resonated immediately with a Dance of Death I had seen a fortnight before in the parish church at La Ferté-Loupière. But was not Bruegel aware that in turning a Dance of Death into a panorama of Death’s final solution—a disciplined army carrying out a scorched earth policy—he was steering into a different, more dangerous world? This is Hell, certainly, but also Last Judg-ment—with now the dead coming out of their graves not to accept reward or punishment but simply to take revenge on the living. In a way that seems typical, Bruegel insists on the closeness of the story he is telling to that of Christian resurrection of the body. Twice he shows members of the skeleton crew busily digging up the coffins of their comrades, and right at the center of the painting, in the mid-background, is a skeleton stepping from his grave (next to a horrible, blood-red filigree cross: signs of Christian burial are swallowed in the general tide of malignancy).

more from TJ Clark at Threepenny Review here.