Artist unknown, “The Triumph of Death” (1446), fresco, 20 x 21 feet, Regional Gallery of Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo, Sicily (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

PALERMO, Sicily — For millennia, the intensity of Sicily’s southern sun, magnified by the three seas surrounding it (the Tyrrhenian, Ionian, and Mediterranean), has been matched by the ever-present specter of death. Like Persephone, whose abduction by Hades is among the island’s defining myths, it seems to live half in light and half in darkness.

Overrun by every empire in Western Civ, decimated by the Black Plague, terrorized by the Inquisition, occupied by the Nazis, and still struggling to escape the Mafia’s trail of blood, Sicily is a land of singular fatalism, where chockablock mausoleums crowd the cemeteries like miniature, close-knit villages, and, in the summer of 1943, farmers unheedingly tended their fields as Allied tanks churned up their roads, routing the Germans to the Strait of Messina.

And so it seems almost predetermined that the most riveting art I encountered during my first few days in Sicily would be rooted in the transience of life. The prevalent aesthetic, typified by the profusions of marble inlay that embellish countless Baroque church interiors and inject daily existence with heavy doses of the fantastical, represents a form of superfluity that in its very overripeness carries a pungent whiff of death — like tangled, blossoming vines spreading rapidly across a bed of rotting black humus.

At the Regional Gallery of Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo, “The Triumph of Death” (1446) is grandly installed in its own double-height space. The fresco, whose authorship is speculative at best, is 20 feet tall by 21 feet wide, an anachronistic Late Gothic work executed 20 years after Masaccio painted the Brancacci Chapel, a final efflorescence defying rigor mortis.

In order to remove the painting from its original site, Palermo’s Palazzo Sclafani, it had to be cut into four parts and reassembled into a two-by-two grid. This action feels vaguely trenchant vis-à-vis a 21st-century mindset, as if the single image could no longer bear its own philosophical weight, and had to be physically partitioned. The four plaster panels underscore the painting’s status as a tangible object (or objects), subverting its original pretense as a window onto a visionary, symbol-laden world.

This unintended grid, whose incisions are responsible for serious deterioration along the edges of the four parts, segregates its enigmatic imagery into distinct, oddly unrelated pictures — another postmodern touch — a grouping that underscores the artist’s dreamlike structure. The large patches of missing paint, in their dull blankness, augment the solidity of the surface and the weight of the plaster panels.

Artist unknown, “The Triumph of Death” (1446), fresco, detail: Death on a Pale Horse, Regional Gallery of Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo, Sicily

The figure of Death on his pale horse (which could have galloped out of a Diego Rivera mural) occupies the dead center of the painting, shooting arrows into a distinctly affluent swath of the population. The majority of the victims have fallen into what is now the lower left panel, while elegantly dressed corpses-to-be, downrange of the fatal arrows, occupy the section on the lower right. A gathering of foppish young men, seemingly untouched by Death’s rampage, mill around a fountain in the upper right panel, while on the upper left, one of their number inexplicably grapples with the leashes of two snarling hunting dogs.

Behind the horse’s tail, a passel of common folk raise their hands in prayer and supplication. A number of contradictory interpretations have been posed for this group, from survivors chanting hosannahs to misérables begging Death to rear his horse around and end their wretched lives. They have also been viewed as peasant rebels celebrating the slaughter of the powerful, and as Jews who, as a class, were proportionately spared the ravages of the epidemic, thanks to their ritual ablutions, and consequently blamed by the Christians for the plague.

The dead, some trampled beneath the horse’s hooves, are of particular interest: dressed primarily as clergy and royalty, they are collapsed into a frighteningly chaotic heap, making it difficult to pick out which body parts belong to whom. (It has been noted that Death’s arrows are piercing the lymph nodes of the victim’s necks, the locus of the plague’s bacterial infection.)

Artist unknown, “The Triumph of Death” (1446), fresco, detail: the dead, Regional Gallery of Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo, Sicily

The bodies are simultaneously severely geometric and richly organic, as if decomposing into the ornate patterns of their own elaborate garments and the rankly lush ground cover  — an effect accentuated by the abraded pigmentation of the fresco surface.

The bodies’ flat, intersecting shapes seem to rise upward and tumble downward at the same time, all the while prefiguring the abstract rigor and jumbled facets of Synthetic Cubism. But the chaos of the dead and the mysteries of the living present a set of real-life paradigms that prevent us from aestheticizing the image. We are too absorbed in the harsh if stylized reality laid down by the unknown painter.

A bizarre but equally absorbing inversion of the life-art nexus can be found in the well-known Catacombs of the Capuchins, a vast crypt resting beneath a monastery where 8000 corpses are interred along with more than 1200 mummified remains, which are arrayed in open coffins or hung in standing positions along the walls. 

When the Capuchin monks first moved to their Palermo base in 1534, which at the time was far from the city proper, they buried their dead in a limestone cistern beneath the altar of their church. When that solution became unsustainable, they decided to excavate a new crypt and transfer the remains from the cistern. However, when they opened the vault, they discovered that 45 bodies were virtually intact, naturally preserved by the limestone container.

This was greeted as a miracle, and the friars decided to display 40 of the intact bodies in the new space. Following the transferral, the first monk to be mummified in the catacombs was Brother Silvestro da Gubbio, who was entombed on October 16, 1599, as the sign stuck to his coarse wool robe informs us.

In time, elaborate embalming techniques involving draining, dehydration, and vinegar were developed to augment the effects of the limestone. At first the catacombs were open for burial only to members of the monastic community, but within a couple hundred years the chambers were expanded and the friars accommodated the demand from laypersons to spend eternity incorruptible rather than molder in an ordinary grave.

That isn’t exactly how it worked out. Men in jackets and vests, women in petticoats, soldiers in uniform, bishops in miters, and children in nightcaps have invariably suffered substantial degradation as their leathery flesh withered, split, and flaked away; their eyeballs swelled and popped; and their gums rotted off to expose crooked and missing teeth.

But it is the manner in which these piteous souls are displayed that pushes the environment into the realm of art. Such an interpretation gets tricky, of course, because it would be a diminishment of the deceased’s humanity, as well as the friars’ intentions, to treat their bodies as found objects, or their decomposition as process, or their arrangement in the catacombs as an installation.

The Corridor of the Men at the Catacombs of the Capuchins, Palermo, Sicily (photo by Sibeaster [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Still, it is impossible to dismiss the dark imagination and at times lacerating wit coursing through the poses assumed by the occupants of the Corridor of the Men — the first passage awaiting you as you enter the crypt — as they “stand” high on a ledge and turn slightly in your direction, as if their hollow, hungry eyes were following your every step. (The bodies are segregated by gender, age, and profession, with bishops and priests separate from brothers, and professional laity — doctors, professors, lawyers, soldiers — separate from everyone else.)

Elsewhere, mummies in mourning clothes gather around a coffin, as if attending a wake; a small girl, high overhead, strides forward with her arm raised, seeming to cast a spell; and an even smaller girl sits in a chair with a skeletal infant cradled in her lap. Some of the corpses have been outfitted with glass eyes, which are reliably unnerving, and while most of the skulls have lost the majority of their skin, some have retained enough to hold on to their hair and eyebrows, even eyelashes. Every jaw has dropped open, and every single face, whatever its state, registers a specific human emotion: curiosity, resignation, opprobrium, shame, awe, agony, or rage. The edge between living and not living has never felt so slim.

To my mind, the most outrageous display is the Chapel of the Virgins, an alcove carved into the intersection of the Corridor of the Women and the Corridor of the Professionals, in which a large, empty wooden cross stands beside three petticoated skeletons, evidently meant to represent the Three Marys at the Crucifixion. Perhaps when the bodies were more intact they conveyed a very different message than they do now, but in their present condition it is hard to come up with an interpretation that doesn’t tread upon nihilism or blasphemy.

The last body to be interred in the catacombs was that of Rosalia Lombardo, who was born 100 years ago and died at the age of two. The recipient of a chemical, rather than traditional, embalming process, she lies perfectly preserved in her glass coffin, theatrically displayed — unlike any of the others — in the middle of a corridor floor. Popularly regarded as a saint, she is the perfect counterpoint to the ghastliness around her, and yet she is as dead as the rest of them, a paradox that pours head-spinning ironies into the mix.

The groupings of mummies bear a relationship to such regional Italian artistic traditions as the terra cotta tableaux, found mostly in northern Italy, that illustrate the life of Christ, or the Misteri of Trapani, a city on Sicily’s northwestern coast, comprised of life-size wood-and-fabric sculptures recounting the Passion, which are carried by teams of men, 20-strong each, in the city’s annual Good Friday procession. In this regard, the arrangements of corpses may have context, but that doesn’t make them any less unsettling.

The changes that have taken place in the crypt over the course of centuries have deepened and expanded its meanings, in effect turning it into an autonomous work of art. Engendered by the imaginations of the monks, it has been transformed through the intercession of time and the elements into something other than the devotional display its makers intended it to be.

Whatever you decide to call this extraordinary thing, it is a creation of human hands that, in its horror, pathos, and sweep, has come closest in my experience to excavating mortality’s depths of denial, and grasping the fragile wonder of drawing breath within the charnel house of time.

Thomas Micchelli is an artist and writer.