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Art Brut

The scene is dominated by skeletons at war. A red horizon tells of a distant burning landscape; black clouds of smoke rise and merge in the sky. Skeletons sing in a nearby choir. They march in huge armies. They take life using weapons of war. They herd the living into a large box, lid held open by a skeleton using a contraption of wood, rope and a pulley. One skeleton pulls a rope to ring a bell. Another rides a starved horse pulling a wooden cart filled with skulls. A raven perches patiently behind the bony horse rider.

This surrealistic scene of a world dominated by skeletons is not a scene from Halloween or the Mexican Day of the Dead. It’s an oil painting on wood by the 16th-century Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel, the elder. The painting hangs in the Prado Museum in Madrid. It is a dark painting with remarkable detail. Brueghel’s war-infected imagery is entitled The Triumph of Death.

I spent a long time examining the dozens of smaller scenes incorporated into this allegorical portrayal of the simple fate that befalls us all. I wrote down what I saw in my notebook, as security guards noted I had stalled before the work. I thought about how the skeletons must be busy in Iraq these days. I then retreated to a narrow and little-used stairwell in the Prado where I added to my notes and wrote a short poem about the painting while sitting alone on a worn marble step.

I understood why the skeletons would exalt in war, since it makes much larger numbers of dying humans available in a shorter period. It’s certainly a far more efficient means to generate death than peace. In one scene amid the painting’s action, the skeletons collect coins of gold and silver in broken barrels. Perhaps Brueghel was pointing out that even those who make their money from mass death ultimately lose it to the means of their enrichment.

The imagery from this painting by Brueghel would return to my thoughts as I walked along the weedy streets of Belchite, a Spanish town that has been left in ruins for over 65 years. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), the skeletons reaped a bumper harvest of young and old as piles of bodies filled these streets. Many more people will see Brueghel’s painting than will witness the ruins of this town, though both attest to the mass death perpetrated by war.

Belchite is located about 35 miles south of the Spanish city of Zaragoza. It is in an out of the way place that few visit. I happened upon the town after rain had curtailed a hike in the Pyrenees Mountains with my two 20-something kids. As we considered alternatives for our last day on the road in Spain, my son, Noah, uncovered a short reference to the town in one of the books we had brought along.

It was in Belchite that the Fascist army of Francisco Franco faced off against Loyalist forces who were heavily reinforced by the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a unit of volunteer fighters, many of whom came from the United States. On Aug. 24, 1937, a terrible battle ensued along these streets. Fierce fighting took place as the battle moved from building to building. Thousands would die here. Only ghosts remain.

It was an overcast and drizzly day as we entered Belchite through a building that arched over the main street of the ruin. Once through the arch, the dramatic degree of destruction that occurred here quickly became evident. Even after 65 years, the level of destruction renders one silent, like entering a graveyard or visiting a place where ghosts are known to gather. The only sounds in this town were the crunch of our steps in the rubble, the soft rattle of an occasional light rain hitting the bricks and mortar strewn along the streets and the low whistle of wind passing through paneless windows.

Walking along, I noticed how many of the facades of the buildings were still intact, but their side walls, roofs and back walls were reduced to piles of rubble. According to eyewitness accounts I would later read, much of the fighting moved through the walls of these buildings, as troops busted through side walls with pickaxes, tossed in hand grenades and shot anything that moved. There wasn’t a piece of glass left unbroken in the town. As the carnage grew, the dead were piled in the streets, burned with gasoline and reduced to ash and a dark smoke that rose with a sickly stench. The town’s rats grew fat.

Control of the town would flip between the Fascists and the Loyalists over time. Franco’s forces finally prevailed, but in the end, the town was so destroyed that it was deemed not worth rebuilding. As in Brueghel’s The Triumph of Death, the skeleton armies ultimately claimed victory, carrying away the lives of many and leaving what had been a vibrant town shattered and in ruins.

Today a new Belchite exists next to the ruins, which are now a national monument. For many today the ruins recall those who fought against fascism in Spain. For me, it also remains a lingering testament to the destruction of war where death always becomes the ultimate victor. For me, Belchite also remains an unpainted scene from Brueghel.

—Tom Nattell


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