The Triumph of Death

Painted in 1562 during the latter part of the Renaissance by Pieter Bruegel “the Elder”, The Triumph of Death, is an imposing and breathtaking piece. Oil on panel, a panorama of seaside landscape, the image displays chaotic death. Bodies spew across one another in heaps and tangled webs of the dead. Skeletal figures jarringly walk across the panel, casually lifting or crawling over the deceased as they advance forward; wreaking terror on the land, the dead and the living.

Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel

The living either attempt to fight back or flee from death. In one corner the sky appears to give hope in the shade of pale blue, while in the far corner and distance viewers can see the potential of doom looming.  The earth is wanting for life, while the armies of skeletons take what is left. As far at the eye can see there is little more than despair and destruction, with the rotting bodies of fish at the shore, and the images of all-consuming death saturate the panel, no social structure safe from death’s grasp as his army advances.

The painting displays Renaissance life in the sixteenth century and the very actual reality of death in all formats. The use of dark earth tones, such as various reds or browns, give the painting a scene of the infernal. Hell lingering just below the surface. A popular subject during this time, dancing with death, the message of the painting is poignant. No one escapes death, regardless of who you are or your social standing. There appears to be small hope within the image, while the skeleton army ravages the land and the people of it, the small barrio of cross manages to encompass a small section of the skeletal figures and keep them from the people.

Detail from Triumph of Death                                                                                                      

During a highly religious point of time, viewers could read into this as religion appearing to be the only true savor. While the painter gives no illusion to religion as a potential power of salvation, the “possible” message is not necessarily false and would have to be left to the interpretation of the viewer. What the painting does accomplish however, is putting death and religion into perspective. It forces one to confront the two and see them in relation to one another. The conclusion is left up to the individual, but the end result being death itself is prominent, and like the mood of the painting, impending.

Tia Ramirez



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