Triumph Of Death — Fresco In Palermo, The Dance Of Death, & The Aragonese Kings Of Naples

February 5, 2015 in Humans

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The “Triumph of Death” is a wall-fresco that was originally painted in/for the Palazzo Sclafani, in what is now southern Italy, in 1446. A couple of centuries after that, the fresco was stripped, divided into four separate parts, and put on display the Regional Gallery of Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo.

It’s currently thought that the work is likely to have been commissioned directly by the Aragonese Kings of Naples — most likely to a (now unknown) Catalan (or maybe Provençal) painter. While the overall themes are typical for the time, the work is notable for its stressing of the macabre, cruel, and grotesque. Perhaps at the request of the commissioner?

Triumph of Death fresco Palermo

While the painter behind the work is unknown, some have proposed that it could be Guillaume Spicre of Bourgogne. Early in the 1900s the work began to decay and fray somewhat, but the process of degradation has been slow.

The fresco is composed as a large miniature, where in a luxurious garden surrounded by a hedge, Death enters riding a skinny horse. It is portrayed while launching deadly arrows against characters belonging to all the social levels, killing them. The horse occupies the centre of the scene, with its ribs well visible and a scrawny head showing teeth and the tongue. Death has just released an arrow, which has hit a young man in the lower right corner; it is keeping on a side the scythe, its typical attribute.

On the lower part are the corpses of the people previously killed: emperors, popes, bishops, friars (both Franciscans and Dominicans), poets, knights, and maidens. Each character is portrayed differently: some still have a grimace of pain on the face, while others are serene; some have their limbs abandoned on the ground, and others are kneeling down after having been just struck by an arrow. On the left is a group of poor people, invoking Death to stop their suffering, but being ignored. Among them, the figure looking towards the observer has been proposed as a possible self-portrait of the artist.

On the right is the group of the nobles, shown as having no interest in the events, and most of them continuing their activities. They include several musicians, richly dressed noblewomen, and knights with fur clothes, as symbols of life and youth. A man is keeping a hawk on his arm, and another is leading two hounds.

Triumph of Death fresco Palermo Detail

The fresco shares a name with the later work “The Triumph of Death” — painted by Pieter Bruegel in 1562. This is of course not surprising, as the Dance of Death was a common motif throughout European art in the Middle Ages — a reminder that death comes to everyone, the rich, the poor, the fortunate, the unfortunate, the pious, and the sinful, alike. A common cultural recognition/belief in periods/times of relative hardship — echoes of that religious sentiment can be see nowadays in Central America, in the recent spread of Santa Muerte (the pretty girl).

Image Credit: Public Domain

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