This scene may reflect the invasion of Brussels by the Spanish, who between 1567 and 1569 slaughtered six to eighteen thousand men, women, and children.
This painting is a haunting evocation of human suffering, mortality, and cruelty, set within the grander scheme of social order, human folly, and endurance. Peasants dance, sing, laugh, and carouse in the shadow of gallows that have temporarily become the roost for a harmless magpie. Like the bird, the peasants are greedy for life, and hardy and industrious even in the face of death. The gallows, an instrument of death made by humans for use against others of their kind, are a stark reminder of the violence of the age, while the dancing people are symbolic of human indifference as well as human survival.