Bruegel: The Fall of the Rebel Angels, Dulle Griet (Mad Meg) and ‘The Triumph of Death’.

The Fall of the Rebel Angels, painted in 1562, is a very different kind of painting to the others displayed here, being one of very few that Bruegel painted in the style of Hieronymous Bosch, with whom, in his lifetime, Bruegel was often compared.  Along with Mad Meg, which we saw a couple of days later in Antwerp, and The Triumph of Death, it’s one of three paintings probably executed for an unknown private patron, in 1562. The quality and richness of invention bear witness to a familiarity with the world of demons that Bruegel shared with his Flemish countrymen.  In these paintings it’s as if Bruegel’s demons are present not in some metaphysical terrain of horror, but the real world of Flemish villages, people and landscapes.


Pieter Bruegel I-Fall of the rebel Angels 1562 detail 8
The Fall of the Rebel Angels: detail

Bruegel Lived at a time when exploration was revealing new lands, astronomy surveyed the heavens, and when the human body and the animal and plant worlds began to be examined scientifically. Yet this remained a time when many, if not most, would have regarded demons as real as  trees and animals. Many phenomena, physical deformities, diseases and epidemics – as yet inexplicable – were seen as the work of devils and demons with their human accomplices – witches sorcerers, alchemists. Devils and demons were experienced as part of everyday reality. A generation earlier In the visual arts, they had been given striking expression in the work of Hieronymus Bosch.


Pieter Bruegel I-Fall of the rebel Angels 1562 detail 4
The Fall of the Rebel Angels: detail

In The Fall of the Rebel Angels, Bruegel has depicted the origin of the demons when the Archangel Michael and his followers drove the angels who had rebelled against God out of Heaven. Falling to Hell, the rebel angels are transformed into devils and demons. They are naked, grimacing, tearing open their own bodies and farting in sheer terror.

The Fall of the Rebel Angels: detail

The rebel angels fall from heaven at the top left of the canvas to hell at the bottom right. Their wings are first transformed into the wings of bats and dragons. Then, as they fall, they are reduced to moths, frogs and other soft things. The rebel angels continue to change their forms as they are driven into the pit of Hell: they lose their legs and wings, and become fish, squid, spawn and strange,swelling seed pods.


Pieter Bruegel I-Fall of the rebel Angels 1562 detail 5
The Fall of the Rebel Angels: detail
Pieter Bruegel I-Fall of the rebel Angels 1562 detail 1
The Fall of the Rebel Angels: detail

At first sight Bruegel appears to be channelling Bosch with these fantastical creatures.  But, as some art historians have pointed out, whereas Bosch’s creatures are figments of his imagination, Bruegel’s are more earthy beasts with facial expressions, peering eyes, human limbs. They aren’t Goyaesque phantoms from his subconscious; they are pests of house and field – prickly, buzzing, mocking, biting, threatening – drawn in realistic detail.

The Fall of the Rebel Angels: detail

The late-lamented Tom Lubbock wrote of this painting in the Independent in 2008:

Bruegel’s fallen angels are an appalling shower. Falling from grace, they have lost their angelic natures and turned into a menagerie of yucky, hybrid critters and beasties. Bizarre, absurd, unpleasant things, they seem neither powerfully dangerous nor deeply evil. They are essentially ridiculous. It is a most unromantic embodiment of sin.  […]

They plunge in a fizzing swarm, like anti-moths, away from the disc of divine light. They spread out to fill the whole lower half of the picture in a dense and chaotic throng. At the bottom right corner they’re being sucked down a fiery plughole to hell. Bruegel presents these devils as a domestic nuisance, an infestation. The “war in heaven” is a hygiene operation. The task of St Michael, the skinny golden knight, and his fellow loyal angels in white robes, is the kind of disgusting, necessary job that might confront any countryman or town dweller – getting rid of a plague of vermin, beating the things out, driving them away. … What an eyeful! It’s an extraordinary miscellany, made of scattered bits of the world – sea creatures, butterflies, poultry, armoured knights, tentacles, tails, eggs and fruit. You can pick out an inflated puffer fish, a sycamore seed, a mushroom cup, a skeleton.
The Fall of the Rebel Angels: detail
  • ‘Dulle Griet, who is looking at the mouth of Hell’

Two days later we’re in Antwerp.  At the Museum Mayer van den Bergh we see two more paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder – Mad Meg and  Twelve Proverbs. Mad Meg is stunning – a large, powerful painting that incorporates dizzying scenes of violence and destruction, ruins, monsters, fights, the mouth of hell, and a woman girded in armour striding forth with a sword in one hand, and a treasure chest under her arm. What can it all mean?


Dulle Griet (Mad Meg), 1562

Bruegel’s earliest biographer, Karel van Mander, writing in 1604, described the painting as ‘Dulle Griet, who is looking at the mouth of Hell’. Dulle Griet (Mad Meg) was a term of disparagement given to any bad-tempered, shrewish woman – a hell-cat. In the words of a popular Flemish proverb, ‘She could plunder in front of hell and return unscathed’.


Mad Meg detail 7
Dulle Griet (Mad Meg): detail

At first sight, Bruegel seems simply to be making fun of noisy, aggressive women. Yet the more you look, the more layered the possible meanings. Meg is human, certainly no demon. Sword in hand,she is gathering up plates, pots and pans. Behind her, other women loot a house, as Meg advances towards the mouth of Hell through a landscape populated by monsters, representing the sins that are punished there. Interestingly, the devilish figures, where their sex can be identified at all, are male. Some are being tied by women to cushions. ‘To tie a devil to a pillow’ meant in those days to cope with the devil – or with a man.

Dulle Griet (Mad Meg): detail

Bruegel loved proverbs: time after time, they serve as inspiration for images in his paintings. A book of proverbs published in Antwerp in 1568 contains a proverb which is very close in spirit to this painting: ‘One woman makes a din, two women a lot of trouble, three an annual market, four a quarrel, five an army, and against six the Devil himself has no weapon’.


Mad Meg detail 1
Dulle Griet (Mad Meg): detail

Could it be that Bruegel had a sneaking admiration for these strong, rambunctious women? The more I studied the painting, the more it seemed a possibility. And yet – there is a danger of reading modern sensibilities into a work created in the context of a very different culture.  Men ruled, sanctioned by religion and custom. A woman then had no privileges. Her father and husband determined her future and decided what was to be done with her property. She was barred from most important occupational fields, while midwives and ‘wise women’ were tried as witches. The Church expected women to be silent and taught that they were less perfect than men.  All of which leads Samantha P, in ‘The Threat of Feminine Power and Madness in Bruegel’s Dulle Griet‘, to the following conclusion:

All of the women in this painting are acting outside of the expected realm of women. They exhibit a greater power, an elevation of self, not only above the men that should be controlling them, but above animals and animal-human hybrids as represented by the demons. These are the women that can march up to the mouth of hell and walk away unscathed. These are the women that can fight against the devil and win, giving the women in this painting a frightening power that upsets the already problematic definitions of human and animal, or even the status of different human bodies. There is no status in this image, only chaos at the hands of women with too much power.



Mad Meg detail 4
Dulle Griet (Mad Meg): detail

But – and this is what makes Bruegel’s paintings (and maybe all art) timeless – we can read the work in our own way in these times.  In this apocalyptic vision of a tumultuous world facing destruction, though armies of men are massing, it’s the women who are sending the devils packing.  There’s a man spooning money out of his own arse.

Dulle Griet (Mad Meg): detail

This is the most Bosch-like of all Bruegel’s works in which plant, animal and human, organic and inorganic elements, are blended madly. The mouth of Hell is part of a living creature; the crown on the forehead of Hell is also a wall with battlements. On the horizon, a town blazes as masculine-looking demons dance and prance in the flames’ red glow.


Mad Meg detail 5
Dulle Griet (Mad Meg): detail

Pleased to meet you –
Hope you guess my name.
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game.

‘When all is said and done’, writes Robert L Bonn in Painting Life, ‘we are left with a big question.  Was Mad Meg the victim of a suffocating, hellish world?  Or was she the triumphant, defiant winner who beat the system, retaliating against it by stealing goods she thought were rightfully hers?’

The Lime tree is on fire and people behave themselves to let prevail all deadly sins….

In our times we can say that we are chasing the “dulle Griet” behindhand… Can we “Ring the bells that still can ring” as Leonard Cohen said.



Leonard Cohen once explained the meaning of the song as follows:

That is the background of the whole record, I mean if you have to come up with a philosophical ground, that is “Ring the bells that still can ring.” It’s no excuse… the dismal situation.. and the future is no excuse for an abdication of your own personal responsibilities towards yourself and your job and your love. “Ring the bells that still can ring”: they’re few and far between but you can find them. “Forget your perfect offering”, that is the hang-up, that you’re gonna work this thing out. Because we confuse this idea and we’ve forgotten the central myth of our culture which is the expulsion from the garden of Eden. This situation does not admit of solution or perfection. This is not the place where you make things perfect, neither in your marriage, nor in your work, nor anything, nor your love of God, nor your love of family or country. The thing is imperfect. And worse, there is a crack in everything that you can put together, physical objects, mental objects, constructions of any kind. But that’s where the light gets in, and that’s where the resurrection is and that’s where the return, that’s where the repentance is. It is with the confrontation, with the brokenness of things.

Howard Jacobson discussed this lyric recently in the Independent:

Those great lines from the song “Anthem”. Ring the bells etc. Forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack – a crack in everything.

It’s like a reprimand to people of my temperament – life’s complainants, eroticists of disappointment, lovers only of what’s flawless and overwrought. Could he be singing this to me? You expect too much, mister. You are too unforgiving. Not everything works out, not everything is great, and not everyone must like what you like. I’ve been taught this lesson before. I remember reading an essay by the novelist Mario Vargas Llosa in which he argues for the necessity of vulgarity in serious literature. Thomas Hardy said a writer needed to be imperfectly grammatical some of the time. Mailer told an audience that not everybody wanted to ride in a Lamborghini. And now here’s Leonard Cohen saying the same thing. Forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack…

And then comes another, still more wonderful, clinching line – “That’s how the light gets in.” Savour that! At a stroke, weakness becomes strength and fault becomes virtue. I feel as though original sin has just been re-explained to me. There was no fall. We were born flawed. Flawed is how we were designed to be. Which means we don’t need redeeming after all. Light? Why go searching for light? The light already shines from us. It got in through our failings.

For a painting that depicts mayhem and disturbance, Mad Meg has had an interesting life. It came into the collections of Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor, then was looted by the Swedish troops in 1648, and reappeared in Stockholm in 1800. Art collector Fritz Mayer van den Bergh discovered it in 1897 at an auction in Cologne, where he bought it for a minimal sum, only later confirming that it was a Bruegel. Now it hangs in the house that his mother had built after his death as a museum to house his collection of more than a thousand artworks, mostly of Northern Renaissance art.

Museum Mayer van den Bergh

Also on display in the Museum Mayer is Twelve Proverbs, painted around 1560.  It’s not actually a painting, because it consists of twelve small round panels that were originally wooden plates or platters painted by Bruegel. The idea was that they would be arranged on a dresser for decoration and amusement. Soon afterwards they were brought together, framed and the texts of the different proverbs added.

Twelve Proverbs, 1560

Proverbs were a source of worldly wisdom in Bruegel’s day, and representations of them feature in many of his paintings. Their presence is an indication of Bruegel’s desire to capture on canvas the wisdom and daily routines of the Flemish people of his time.  These panels illustrate proverbs such as: ‘No matter what I attempt, I never succeed; I always piss against the moon (‘bark at the moon’, as we’d put it).


Twelve Proverbs detail 1
Twelve Proverbs: detail

And ‘He who works to no avail, throws roses to the pigs (or, casts pearls before swine).

Twelve Proverbs: detail

And my favourite: ‘I am touchy and contrary, so I bang my head against a brick wall’.


Twelve Proverbs detail 3
Twelve Proverbs: detail

While in Antwerp, we visited the house of Nicolaas Rockox, wealthy collector and patron of Rubens.  In his collection is a copy of Pieter Breugel the Elder’s painting Proverbs (now in Berlin) that illustrates these twelve proverbs and more.  The original was painted in Antwerp in 1559; the copy was made by Breugel’s son, Pieter Breughel II in 1595.


Breughel II Proverbs
Pieter Breughel II, Proverbs, 1595

Wikipedia has a useful entry that details the over 100 proverbs referenced in the painting.

Pieter Breughel II, Proverbs, 1595 (detail)

This detail illustrates two proverbs – To bang one’s head against a brick wall and One foot shod, the other bare (meaning: Balance is paramount).

Pieter Breughel II, Proverbs, 1595 (detail)

In this detail, She puts the blue cloak on her husband (ie, She deceives him) is illustrated, while the man in white with the spade is Filling the well after the calf has already drowned (taking action only after a disaster or, as we might say, Shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted). To the right, a man is Casting roses before swine (Wasting effort on the unworthy). Above the swine, The pig is stabbed through the belly (A foregone conclusion or what is done can not be undone), while the black dog on the left illustrates Watch out that a black dog does not come in between (Mind that things don’t go wrong).

Pieter Breughel II, Proverbs, 1595 (detail)

This last detail illustrates To be barely able to reach from one loaf to another (To have difficulty living within budget). The spilt bucket references He who has spilt his porridge cannot scrape it all up again (Once something is done it cannot be undone).

As Tom Lubbock wrote in the Independent: ‘Bruegel comes across as an inherently democratic painter, part of popular, not elite, culture. He embraces all of life, effortlessly combining comic and tragic. He’s a crowd pleaser and his art delights in teeming crowds’.  That’s why I like his pen and ink sketch, made in 1565 when he was close to 40 years old (top).

In the drawing, Bruegel comments on the relationship between artist and client, art and money. It’s reckoned to be a self-portrait, showing himself with brush poised at his right hand, staring intently at the picture before him. His concentration is unwavering in the act of creating. Behind him stands a second man, probably a merchant, who is obviously captivated by the unseen picture. His hand reaches for his coin purse as he contemplates owning the picture. The painter is clear-eyed, but the joke is that the connoisseur needs glasses.  It’s a timeless portrait of the Bohemian artist with his dishevelled hair and the wealthy buyer anticipating a profit on the trade.

  • ‘The Triumph of Death’. 

Don DeLillo’s massive novel Underworld opens with a prologue called ‘The Triumph of Death’.  The title comes from the Bruegel painting that hangs in the Prado in Madrid – the first Bruguel we ever saw in the flesh (so to speak), visiting there on an Easter break in 2003. As spectators watch the closing minutes of the famous Dodgers-Giants 1951 baseball league final, a piece of paper drifts down and sticks to the shoulder of J. Edgar Hoover sitting in the stands. It’s a page torn from that week’s issue of Life magazine, a reproduction of Bruegel’s painting, that illustrates an article about the Prado.

Hoover stares, transfixed at ‘a landscape of visionary havoc and ruin’, in which human figures are ‘impaled on lances, hung from gibbets, drawn on spoked wheels fixed to the top of bare trees, bodies open to the crows’.  Death wields his scythe, ‘pressing people in haunted swarms toward the entrance of some helltrap’. There are ‘ash skies and burning ships’.

As Hoover holds the page before him, the painting and the baseball park merge. He sees that ‘all these people have never had anything in common so much as this’, but that they are sitting ‘in the furrow of destruction’. Minutes earlier, he has learnt that the Soviet union has conducted its first nuclear test. Bruegel’s painting repels him; he can’t understand  – ‘why a magazine called Life would want to reproduce a painting of such lurid and dreadful dimensions’ – but he ‘can’t take his eyes off the page’.

The painting continues to be a presence throughout the novel. For DeLillo, the baseball game represents a moment when millions of Americans are connected by ‘the pulsing voice on radio, joined to the word-of-mouth that passes the score along the street’ in counterpoint to living under the threat of annihilation during the years of the Cold War. The game is something to believe in, and ‘to believe is to hope, and to hope is to live.’

Brueguel, The Triumph of Death, 1562
Bruegel, The Triumph of Death, 1562

When we encountered it that Easter in the Prado in Madrid, The Triumph of Death hung directly across from Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. The artists were contemporaries, and both paintings are vast panoramas with forceful moral lessons which ended up here in the Prado because both artists were favourites of Philip II, who acquired many of their works works for the Hapsburg collections.

In Bruegel’s painting – one of the most terrifying of its time and the centuries since – Death lays waste to the earth, triumphing over everyone, whether king or card-player, soldier, mother and child, or young lovers. In a landscape which is death itself – withered grass, blasted trees, and apocalyptic fires burning – Death leads his armies mounted upon a withered horse, and wielding an immense scythe. All around are scenes of destruction in which there is no escape from a brutal or horrific d

Bruegel, The Triumph of Death, 1562 (detail)

In the foreground, a skeleton cuts a man’s throat while nearby an emaciated dog gnaws the face of a dead baby who lies cradled in the arms of her  mother who has died trying to save her.  No-one is left to finish burying the dead who lie where they have fallen. One corpse lies abandoned in an open coffin, the body of a dead baby draped over the side.

Bruegel, The Triumph of Death, 1562 (detail)

In the far distance, on a bluff above the sea, a man has been flayed and hung from a tree. His body is pinned in the branches by a metal pin that passes through his skull. Nearby, a man is hung from a gallows, watched by onlookers, while to the right a man is on his knees, blindfolded and about to be decapitated.  It’s a vignette that immediately brings to mind the videos released by Isis documenting their own beheadings. More bodies are impaled on the spoked wheels atop poles commonly used at the time to display the bodies of those who had been publicly executed.

Bruegel, The Triumph of Death, 1562 (detail)

In the foreground is the figure of Death riding a skeletal horse, trampling over bodies and wielding a huge scythe. Behind him lumbers a monstrous cart spewing fire and flame, presided over by a mysterious hooded figure, his arm raised as if conducting the massacre. Next to him is a wire cage from which birds – representing the souls of the dead – are escaping, only to be consumed in the Hellish flames which cast no light.

Unknown artist, The Triumph of Death, Palermo, c1446

In this painting, Bruegel combines imagery from two visual traditions. The first is the Dance of Death, a late medieval allegory of death’s universality in which Death leads the living in a procession toward the grave. But art historians also point out references to the Italian conception of the Triumph of Death, which he would have seen in frescoes in the Palazzo Sclafani in Palermo during his stay in Italy from 1552 to 1553. Certainly, the figure of Death mounted upon a skeletal horse is strikingly similar.

Bruegel, The Triumph of Death, 1562 (detail)

Death herds the living towards a rectangular container before which humanity is piled up, a tangled mass of tumbling bodies. On either side of the trap skeletons advance on the outnumbered humans behind coffin lids emblazoned with the sign of the cross which have been seized from the the graves that gape across the canvas. The whole scene is unfolding to the sound of drums, trumpets, bells and a hurdy-gurdy.

What is particularly disturbing from a 21st-century perspective is the way in which Bruegel presents the confrontation between the living and the dead not as a chaotic scene of individual fate or retribution, but as the calculated extermination of the living by regiments of armed skeletons, forcing their victims inside the container in a manner strikingly similar to that of the Nazi extermination camps.

Each period of human history has generated its own terrors: for Bruegel, the Triumph of Death is a visual representation of the bloodshed and atrocities unleashed in his time as the forces of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation battled for supremacy: the battalions of the dead carry the sign of the Cross, while the great door of the extermination chamber is also inscribed with the Christian symbol.

Bruegel, The Triumph of Death, 1562 (detail)

Scenes in the lower section of the painting reinforce the message of the Dance of Death: that no-one, whatever their status, escapes. We see that the king, with his ermine-trimmed robe and buckets of silver and gold, is as helpless as everyone else. His death is as inevitable as it is for his subjects: a skeleton leans over his shoulder holding an hourglass in which the sands of time are about to run out.

Beyond, a pale horse hauls a cart filled with skulls, its wheels trampling bodies on the ground. Three of them are women whom experts suggest represent Lachesis, Clotho and Atropos, the goddesses of fate in Greek mythology. It was Atropos, depicted by Bruegel in red, who chose the mechanism of a mortal’s death and ended each life by cutting their thread with her ‘abhorred shears’.  She worked with her two sisters – Clotho, who spun the thread, and Lachesis who measured the length. They are both being ground beneath the wheels of the cart.

There is something particularly unbearable about this passage, implying as it does a nihilistic sense of the meaninglessness of death contaminating life. If death leads nowhere, life becomes nothing but ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’, in Shakespeare’s famous expression.

Instead of Fate being portrayed as triumphant, as she would have been in conventional paintings of the time, Bruegel shows her crawling desperately beneath the hooves of an emaciated horse attempting to avoid Death’s impartial tread, an illustration both of the universality of death and the futility of attempting to escape one’s fate.

Bruegel, The Triumph of Death, 1562 (detail)

At the top of the picture ships are aflame or sunk in a harbour while smoke rises from distant towers. Death has laid waste the countryside that lies barren beneath a darkened sky. What strikes me about Bruegel’s depiction of this flayed land is how all the various forms of death he paints refer to the horrors of war. An army has sacked towns and villages, set buildings aflame, herded a community into their chapel and murdered them there.

In the wasteland at the centre of the detail shown above Bruegel has inserted a reference to the medieval legend of the Grateful Dead – but inverted it in the process. In the legend a righteous man comes across the corpse of a person he does not know. Although the man is unknown to him, he still provides a proper burial with religious rites. Later, when his benefactor is attacked, the grateful dead man rises up to protect him.

The Christian Church absorbed the legend, but altered its meaning in order to promote prayer and integrate the doctrine of purgatory: by paying for  prayers or purchasing indulgences and thereby proving their devotion to the faith, individuals would save their souls. In The Triumph of Death, skeletal figures with ropes and shovels are seen next to fresh graves. Though the legend of the Grateful Dead has the righteous burying the dead, Bruegel has the dead digging up the righteous. Reversing the folklore, he references the hated church doctrine of indulgences. (See: Satire in the Triumph of Death: Pieter Bruegel and Humanism by Susan Gisselberg, available online)

Bruegel, The Triumph of Death, 1562 (detail)

There is no escape: death intrudes even at moments of gaiety and peace. At the bottom right of the picture, a group of wealthy people have been startled from their gaming, good food and wine. The backgammon board and playing cards lie scattered, while a masked skeleton empties the wine flasks. Everyone reacts in their different ways: the jester tries to hide under the tablecloth, a richly-garbed man draws his sword, while a pair of lovers at the extreme right continue to make music and gaze into each other’s eyes.

But there is no escape from the scourge of war. Men and women may try to fend off death’s henchmen with sword and spear, but the living are badly outnumbered, their efforts futile. Death is inevitable and unsparing of high or low, a lesson that medieval and Renaissance artists reiterated.  And death comes in many guises: the variety of tortures in store during wartime is unlimited.

Bruegel, The Triumph of Death, 1562 (detail)

At the left of the painting a great bell is being tolled by two skeletons, while those who have taken refuge in an isolated tower and in a a small chapel are massacred. As always in his paintings, the landscape in which Bruegel depicts these horrors is recognisably Dutch. It’s possible that the scenes he depicts were conjured from his imagination, or were conventions based on earlier artists’ visions.  But it is also possible that they represent atrocities he might have witnessed or heard about during the Spanish terror campaign against Protestants in the Netherlands that was to culminate in full-scale revolt against Spanish rule in 1567, two years before Bruegel’s death.

Jonathan Jones, writing in the Guardian, argued that ‘Bruegel is a historian of the horrors we know’. In The Massacre of the Innocents, Death in the guise of Philip II’s soldiers batters at the door of Dutch villagers:

Death was doing this regularly in Bruegel’s southern Netherlands in the late 1560s, as the beginnings of the Dutch revolt against Catholic rule provoked vicious repression. In 1565, despite the urging of local nobles for moderation, Philip II reaffirmed the death penalty for heresy among his Netherlands subjects; in 1566 there were Calvinist riots; in 1567 the Duke of Alba was sent with an army to try to crush dissent for good, resulting in one of the cruellest military campaigns in European history.

Unusually for a painting of this period, Bruegel seems to offer no distinct religious meaning, no Christian message of redemption. God is absent, and there is no hint of salvation through Christ, as in many other paintings of the period that warn of death’s inevitability. Instead, the pair of skeletons tolling the black bell in the upper left corner, seem to be ringing the death knell of humanity.

The Triumph of Death seems to send an implacable message: that all will  perish by the same uncaring hand of Death, and there will be no redemption. While the armies of the dead bear the holy cross aloft, Bruegel suggests there will be no salvation of the soul. Death is ugly and death is final. In an era when belief in an afterlife and the grace of God were axiomatic, this painting must have been profoundly shocking.

In Don DeLillo’s evocation of the crowd at a 1951 baseball game, Bruegel’s apocalyptic vision stands for the fear of nuclear annihilation that would haunt a generation. But that fear has faded to be replaced by new nightmares that now haunt the 21st century: towers toppling, bombs exploding in crowded city streets, beheadings and gruesome tortures.

Almost exactly a year after we had gazed at Bruegel’s nightmare vision, during Madrid’s rush hour on the morning of 11 March 2004, at Atocha train station – a ten minute walk from the Prado – three bombs exploded, followed in the next two minutes by another seven bombs at three different stations. 191 people were killed and almost 2000 maimed.

Mohsin Hamid

In his latest book, Mohsin Hamid, the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist who lives in Lahore, has an essay called ‘Living in the age of permawar‘ in which he writes:

Humanity is afflicted by a great mass murderer about whom we are encouraged not to speak. The name of that murderer is Death. Death comes for everyone. Sometimes Death will pick out a newborn still wet from her aquatic life in her mother’s womb. Sometime Death will pick out a man with the muscles of a superhero, pick him out in repose, perhaps, or in his moment of maximum exertion, when his thighs and shoulders are trembling and he feels most alive. Sometimes Death will pick singly. Sometimes Death will pick by the planeload. Sometimes Death picks the young, sometimes the old, and sometimes Death has an appetite for the in-between.

You feel it is strange that humanity does not come together to face this killer, like a silver-flashing baitball of 7 billion fish aware of being hunted by a titanic and ravenous shark. Instead, humanity scatters. We face our killer alone, or in families, or in towns or cities or tribes or countries. But never all together.

Death divides us because often it assumes human form. It makes of one of its future victims a present instrument. And so we humans have come to fear each other. And, because we humans can clearly be beaten, as adversaries we are far more attractive than Death itself, and so we humans have come to plan and scheme to defeat us humans, to build great superstructures of law and belief and politics and violence out of our fears of the Death we see reflected in ourselves.

There is no shark, we 7 billion shimmering fish say, there are only cannibals.

That, I think, is what Bruegel’s great painting represents: that Death is not something outside of our common humanity, but is within us, galvanised by our religions and our ideologies. Bruegel holds up the mirror, but says no more. Mohsin Hamid concludes his essay by offering hope that Bruegel, for whatever reason, chose to omit from his painting:

So you are a reader, a writer, in this, the time of the permawar, searching, among other things, for empathy, for transcendence, for encounters that need not divide us into clans, for stories that can be told around a campfire generous enough for 7 billion, stories that transcend divisions, question the self and the boundaries of groups, stories that are a shared endeavour not at the level of the tribe, but of the human, that remind us we are not adversaries, we are in it together, the great mass murderer, Death, has us all in its sights, and we would do well not to allow ourselves willingly to be its instruments, but instead to recognise one another with compassion, not as predatory cannibals, but as meals for the same shark, each with a limited, precious time to abide, a time that deserves our respect and our wonder, a time that is a story, each of us a story, each of them a story, and each of these other stories, quite possibly, just as unique, just as frightened, as tiny, as vast, as made up as our own.