The mural “The victory of death” by Francesco Traini (Photo: public domain).

At Camposanto Monumentale in Pisa, Italy, there is a fresco titled “The Victory of Death” painted by the painter Francesco Traini. The painting reflects a scene from the plague of the Black Death which spread throughout Europe in 1340.

Among the piled-up corpses, the spirits of the dead turned into naked children. Some were taken away by angels, others by demons; and some endure a rivalry between angels and demons. The image awakens the viewer.

Part of “Victory of Death” (Image: Public Domain).

The 16th-century Dutch painter, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, also portrayed the Triumph of Death in a more famous version. The work is a combination of the traditional Nordic dance of death and the “Victory of death” in Italy. The image shows the tragedy of plagues, wars, other massive deaths and human incapacity. The subject of the photo is very serious, but thanks to the humorous style and the use of warm and cold colors, the crisis atmosphere is significantly reduced.

“Victory of Death”, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1562, Collection of the Prado Museum, Madrid (Photo: Public domain).

Under the influence of Hieronymous Bosch sunbae (1450-1516), Bruegel enjoys large panoramas, seeing the world from a supernatural point of view, higher than the earth.

“Victory of Death” stretches from the horizon into the distance and covers the whole frame: red sky and terrifying dark clouds, ships sinking in the sea, smoke and fire on arid lands, gallows strewn on the ground, others tools of torture, corpses of humans and animals … There are two skeletons in the upper left corner that sound the death knell for the world.

Part of the “Triumph of Death” by Peter Bruegel (Image: Public domain).

In the photo, the bones of the Army of Death advance, brutally executing everyone. They gradually take control of the world of the living. In the center was the Skeleton Corps Commander, dressed in black and sitting on a black car. The general commander of the army, holding a sickle, mounted his horse, panicked and fled a large number of people. During the chaos, people pushed and stomped on each other, unable to protest. A few brave people raised their weapons to retaliate, but were destroyed by “ghosts” …

Part of Peter Bruegel’s ‘Victory of Death’ (Image: Public Domain).

In the lower left corner, there are two skeletons pulling a cart full of skulls as “loot”. Lots of details depicting chase, chase and murder scenes. Victory and defeat in the war between life and death are clearly determined.

What makes people think is that people of different classes, from peasants, soldiers to nobles, monarchs, rulers, are all powerless against death. The skeletons also show all kinds of states, there are people who take money, kill people and steal money, indulge in indulgence, play chess …

For example, in the lower left corner, there is a monarch helplessly gazing at his property stolen by a dry skeleton (as if it had been stolen from someone else during his lifetime). Behind the king is a skeleton holding an hourglass, wanting to remind that his time is running out. Religion considered pre-death confession to be very important, but what mattered to this king when he died was money. Next to him is the skeleton of the bishop’s red hat supporting a cardinal near the end of his life.

Part of Peter Bruegel’s ‘Victory of Death’ (Image: Public Domain).

In the center of the foreground, a skeleton cuts the neck of a tourist and steals his wallet. In the lower right corner was a chaotic scene. Dry bones crashed on everyone’s entertainment table.

The chairs were thrown away, the wine glasses, the cards were scattered. A man hastily drew his sword, a woman shrouded in ghosts, a skeleton serving a “skull” party that terrified people… Only a couple were immersed in the sound of a mandolin. like not being aware of what’s going on around me.

Ironically, death is right behind them, singing and in concert, imitating so-called human happiness. All of this reflects that the various desires and activities of life are all unacceptable, causing people to forget the true purpose of life and move towards destruction.

Part of Peter Bruegel’s victory over death. (photo: public domain)

Bruegel also likes to use traditional allusions to enrich the meaning of the image. For example, a woman lying in front of a car would cut a thin thread in her hand with scissors – it was a symbol of Atropos, one of the three ancient goddesses of fate (2). She cuts the fate of people, determines the death of people, but what this woman wants to cut can be hers.

Another woman was lying on her stomach, holding a child in her chest, which is a sign of the goddess weaving fate or determining longevity. Because human life is fragile – this woman obviously cannot continue to weave her own destiny and that of her baby. The history of each part of the image is shown in detail through the artist’s drawing.

Part of Peter Bruegel’s ‘Victory of Death’ (Image: Public Domain).

The tragic scene of this painting recalls the spectacle predicted of the end of the world in the book of Revelation (3). Revelation mentions that there are four knights who represent the plagues, wars and famines which spread suffering throughout the world at the end of time. The fourth knight is the death sickle. (4)

In the Bible there is a description: “Look, I saw a gray horse, and the rider named Death, followed by the Underworld. They have the power over a quarter of the earth, to kill people with swords, famine, pestilence and the beasts that live on the earth ”(5).

This theme of death also appeared on the frescoes in Palazzo Abatellis, which provided Bruegel with a good reference.

Trionfo della morte (Victory of Death), a Gothic fresco in the Abatellis Palace (Image: public domain)

Whether it is war, famine or disease, it is death in the end. The artist’s intention is like an end-time prophecy, warning people to quickly correct their behavior, following divine teachings to avoid the end of destruction.

In such extraordinary times today, the image of the Victory of Death should also give rise to much reflection. Looking out to the world, the spread of epidemics, floods, frequent locusts, the global economic downturn, the food crisis, war is looming … sometimes ‘doomsday’ disasters hang on the head of the world. ‘humanity.

Natural disasters are linked to human sin, be it illness or death, they all follow heavenly Italy. Believe it or not, humans are very small in the universe. If you take an epidemic or disaster as a warning, please calmly and humbly repent and cultivate a compassionate mind. Maybe you can really avoid calamity, give your own life hope.