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
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.