The Triumph of Death
Pieter Bruegel the Elder
oil on panel,
Museo del Prado, Madrid
[Gradually, Eliza] was drawn to a smaller panel that hung on the far wall. From a distance, it looked dark, but closer, the detail began to appear, a bleak coastline, a sluggish river, fires that cast a sombre glow across a landscape where death marched as an army. Brueghel's masterpiece: The Triumph of Death.
The painting exercised a fascination over her. She was intrigued by the meticulous techniques that had kept the paint so fresh, the luminescence of the water and the incandescent glow that suffused the landscape. Brueghel had probably worked with tempera white heightening into the wet or on the dry imprimatura, beginning with the highlights of the flesh... It was a painting that drew the eye, as the army of death advanced across a desolate landscape, hunting down and slaughtering the living, men, women and children, with a pitiless dedication and terrifying cruelty.
The painting is a panoramic landscape of death: the sky in the distance is blackened by smoke from burning cities and the sea is littered with shipwrecks. Armies of skeletons advance on the hapless living, who either flee in terror or try vainly to fight back. Skeletons kill people in a variety of ways - slitting throats, hanging, drowning, and even hunting with skeletal dogs. In the foreground, skeletons haul a wagon full of skulls, and ring the bell that signifies the death knell of the world. A fool plays the lute while a skeleton behind him plays along; a starving dog nibbles at the face of a child; a cross sits lonely and impotent in the center of the painting. People flee into a tunnel decorated with crosses whilst a skeleton on horseback slaughters people with a scythe. The painting clearly depicts people of different social backgrounds - from peasants and soldiers to nobles and even a king - being taken by death indiscriminately.
Pieter Bruegel (or Brueghel) the elder, born c. 1525, is best known for his landscapes populated by peasants and others, hunting, ploughing (while, in the distance, Icarus falls into the sea), celebrating a wedding. His Triumph of Death combines this approach with the medieval commonplace of the Dance of Death (as illustrated in the stained glass panels, right): Death dances with all levels of society, and no-one can escape him.
Visit the Artchive to view this painting in greater detail.