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Art Through Time: A Global View

Death Art: Triumph of Death

» Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Netherlandish, c. 1525–1569)
Triumph of Death

Triumph of Death
Artist / Origin: Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Netherlandish, c. 1525–1569)
Region: Europe
Date: ca. 1562
Period: 1400 CE – 1800 CE
Material\: Oil on panel
Medium: Painting
Dimensions: H: 46 in. (117 cm.), W: 63.8 in. (162 cm.)
Location: Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain
Credit: Courtesy of Art Resource/Photo by Erich Lessing

Painted by Bruegel around 1562, this apocalyptic work known as the Triumph of Death depicts the end of all life on earth.

Because of the high horizon, Bruegel is able to present a broad vision of death and destruction. Two narratives are enacted in the horrific scene. The larger narrative shows Death, in the form of a skeleton, riding on a pale horse through the middle-ground, leading an army of executioners to bombard and kill the masses of humanity.

Details within this chaotic scene illustrate a second narrative. Along the foreground of the painting, individuals representing different stations in life—including a king, a cardinal, chess players, a loving couple, and a knight—are slaughtered. Only one finely dressed figure in the right foreground draws his sword to fight back Death. One by one these prominent individuals, along with the anonymous masses, fall prey to Death, who does not discriminate. This kind of imagery is reminiscent of the medieval series known as the Dance of Death.

Death’s horrors, similar to the visions presented in Bruegel’s Triumph, were familiar to the citizens of Antwerp at mid-century. Religious wars with the Spanish ended the peace and prosperity of the southern Netherlands at this time.

Expert Perspective:
Larry Silver, Professor of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania

“The image that really does make me think about my own mortality is an image by Pieter Bruegel called The Triumph of Death. And what’s terrifying is the fact that it’s so crowded. There are so many skeletal figures, there are so many humans, but they are dwarfed in numbers and they are being overrun by the skeletons. And a picture like that puts fear into you, in a way that some of these other images might have done for people. But there is a certain charm in the variety of figures, and costumes, a certain charm in seeing the different compositions of the skeleton with a different character that takes a little of the aura of fear, the shudder, away from the experience; that’s an overpowering sense of mortality.

The figures in the Bruegel picture are actually relatively small, each one. The picture itself is about the span of two hands separated. So it’s a picture that you can really get up close to and get into and as a picture itself, it’s a pretty good-sized framed work in Madrid. So that it has this double effect, too, of luring you in to contemplate those details and then overwhelming you with the sheer number of skeletons that confront you.”

Additional Resources

Gibson, Walter S. Bruegel. London: Thames & Hudson, 1993 Reprint.

Sellnik, Manfred. Bruegel: The Complete Paintings, Drawings and Prints. New York: H.N. Abrams, 2007.

Silver, Larry. “Ungrateful Dead: Bruegel’s Triumph of Death Re-Examined,” in Excavating the Medieval Image, edited by David S. Areford and Nina A. Rowe. Aldershot, Hants; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004.

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Art Through Time: A Global View

Credits

Produced by THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG. 2009.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-888-2