'I find thrilling the abrupt shallow depth of field, pitching us viewers into the heap of corpses almost under the horse’s hooves. It’s a profound painting and a sobering one .'
Dame Marina Warner chooses The Triumph of Death:
‘When you enter the gallery, you’re confronted with this unforgettable giant spectre: the pale horse of the Apocalypse and the spookily long-limbed archer riding it, bareback, bone grinding on bone, as, beneath him, he levels the mighty – kings and popes, lords and ladies. Behind him, a group of lesser folk appeal for mercy and, before him, golden lads and girls keep up life’s civilised pleasures.
‘I love the ferocious drama, set among subtle tones and refined drawing, those grey-blue Chinesey curls of the storm clouds! And I find thrilling the abrupt shallow depth of field, pitching us viewers into the heap of corpses almost under the horse’s hooves. It’s a profound painting and a sobering one. ’
Dame Marina Warner is professor of English and Creative Writing at Birkbeck College, London, and president of the Royal Society of Literature. Her latest book, Forms of Enchantment: Writings on Art and Artists, was published in 2018.
John McEwen comments on The Triumph of Death:
This fresco was commissioned by Alfonso V of Aragon, King of Sicily and Sardinia (1396–1458) for a palace he turned into a hospital. The picture was moved to its present site in visibly damaged sections.
The bubonic plague, that scourge of the Middle Ages, originated in China and spread west along trade routes, the bacterium supposedly carried by fleas on black rats. The busy ports of Palermo and Messina meant Sicily was one of the first places in Europe to suffer the ‘Black Death’ of 1347–51 – the name was coined in the 17th century. Recurrent outbreaks meant plague was Death’s spectre across Europe for generations. The only escape was to the countryside.
Death and his disgusting apocalyptic, semi-rotted, horse dominate the picture. The significantly Mongol bow and sheath fire pestilential arrows arbitrarily at rich and poor, young and old, female and male. They strike the neck – swollen lymph nodes are often a first plague symptom.
The apparently untroubled group on the right may refer to The Decameron by Boccaccio (1313–75), a collection of tales told by a group of 10 young Florentine aristocrats, seven women and three men, who escaped to a country villa and, over 10 days, told each other 100 stories.
Some attribute the painting to Antonio Pisanello (1395–1455/56), an Italian exponent of northern-influenced International Gothic, as opposed to the Renaissance tradition of Italy. Gothic embraced the grotesque and Pisanello is famous for his animals. He was in Palermo striking medals for Alfonso around this date.
About 150 people still annually die from bubonic plague, although there were protests when the Shiant Isles in the Outer Hebrides were recently cleared of the last known British colony of black rats.
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