The Triumph of Death is an oil panel painting realized by the Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder in 1562 ca. It depicts a scene populated by numerous figures with moralizing intentions, which is marked by the influence of Hieronymus Bosch. The artwork is a pivotal example of the Northern Renaissance style. It is now preserved at Museo del Prado in Madrid.
What is Depicted in the Artwork?
Pieter Bruegel the Elder depicts a landscape scene populated with different figures during a violent massacre. The scene of death and destruction is caused by an army of skeletons. It is an allegory of Death, which comes to earth and kills men and women, who react in different ways: some fight strenuously for survival, and others give up resigned or frightened. Death leads his army with a reddish horse that alluded to the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse destroying the world of the living. The location is a grim and desolate landscape with warm tones that evoke a hellish atmosphere. Skeletons carry out all kinds of bloody massacres, drowning, wounding, beheading, and hanging. They also destroy the surrounding nature by setting fire.
Representatives of different social institutions are depicted in the crowded composition: an emperor to whom a skeleton shows the hourglass, a symbol of flowing life; a prelate who is fainting next to a skeleton wearing a galero, a hat associated with the Catholic Church; soldiers futilely trying to fight against the army of skeletons; and a pair of lovers, at the lower right, trying to keep themselves apart from suffering. There are also skeletons stealing from barrels full of coins, a symbol of human riches and vanity, an enormous coffin, and a burning castle populated by devils. The entire composition is a warning that there is no power, social class, or devotion that can save humans from the fate of death.
The work is not signed and dated but it was probably commissioned from Pieter Bruegel the Elder by the same patron as part of a series with two other paintings, Dulle Griet of 1563 and The Fall of the Rebel Angels, realized in 1562. The three works are, in fact, similar in size and they all show the influence of Bosch’s fantasy world.
The Triumph of Death was probably the work cited by Flemish biographer Karel van Mander as a painting in which “there are employed all means against death,” owned by Queen Elizabeth of Farnese, wife of Philip V of Spain. In 1745 it was exhibited in La Granja Palace in San Ildefonso. It is part of the collection of the Museo del Prado in Madrid since 1827.
Bruegel fuses two established iconographic traditions: the Italian tradition of Triumphs of Death, with works such as the fresco of the Triumph of Death in Palermo, dated 1446 and which the painter had the opportunity to visit during his trip to Italy; and the Nordic iconographic tradition of the Dance Macabre. Some details, such as Death bursting on horseback, almost certainly derived from the Palermo model.
The Triumph of Death is a macabre iconographic theme with moralizing intent common in Medieval Literature. Death is symbolized by the army of skeletons destroying the planet and triumphing over the mundane and futile things of sinful humans. These subjects became widespread in the late Middle Ages and were even more in vogue after the Black Death of 1348 as a representation of the terrible collective experience of the plague.
The subject is closely related to the theme of the Last Judgment and the division into Heaven and Hell; in other examples, death performs a gratuitous carnage with no hope of salvation. It is important to note how in Bruegel’s Triumph of Death, characters from different social classes are depicted, from kings to humble people, emphasizing how everyone regardless of status is equal in the face of Death.
The characters are also inspired by the major arcana of the tarot, like the Emperor, the Pope, the Lovers, the Chariot, and The Tower.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder
The artwork was probably part of a Bruegel series that also included The Fall of the Rebel Angels, an oil-on-panel painting of 1562, and Dulle Griet, also known as Mad Meg, an oil-on-panel of 1563. The second subject is a figure of Flemish folklore.