The Triumph of Death
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The painting shows a panorama of an army of skeletons wreaking havoc across a blackened, desolate landscape. Fires burn in the distance, and the sea is littered with shipwrecks. A few leafless trees stud hills otherwise bare of vegetation; fish lie rotting on the shores of a corpse-choked pond. Art historian James Snyder emphasizes the "scorched, barren earth, devoid of any life as far as the eye can see." In this setting, legions of skeletons advance on the living, who either flee in terror or try in vain to fight back. In the foreground, skeletons haul a wagon full of skulls; in the upper left corner, others 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 in the center of the painting. People are herded into a trap decorated with crosses, while a skeleton on horseback kills people with a scythe. The painting depicts people of different social backgrounds – from peasants and soldiers to nobles as well as a king and a cardinal – being taken by death indiscriminately.
The painting shows aspects of everyday life in the mid-sixteenth century. Clothes are clearly depicted, as are pastimes such as playing cards and backgammon. It shows objects such as musical instruments, an early mechanical clock, scenes including a funeral service, and various methods of execution, including the breaking wheel, the gallows, and the headsman.
Bruegel combines two distinct visual traditions within this incident-crammed panel. These are his native tradition of Northern woodcuts of the Dance of Death and the Italian conception of the Triumph of Death, as in frescoes he would have seen in the Palazzo Sclafani in Palermo and in the Camposanto Monumentale at Pisa. However, Bruegel's unforgettable version of the army of Death relentlessly advancing across a hellish landscape is quite original and is one of the most remarkable products of his imagination.
For all men and women, however exalted their status on earth, there is no escape from the army of Death, which advances inexorably across Bruegel's burning landscape. The first detail shown here is crammed with a multitude of striking and horrifying individual images: the boat of death carrying its grisly cargo of skeletons draped in their winding-sheets and with skulls at the port-holes; the wagon-load of skulls and bones pulled along by an emaciated horse ridden by a skeleton tolling a bell and carrying a lamp. A second skeleton parodies human happiness by playing a hurdy-gurdy while the wheel of his cart crush a man. A woman has fallen in the path of the death cart; she holds in her hand a spindle and distaff, classical symbols of the fragility of human life. The slender thread is about to be cut by the scissors in her other hand. Just below her a cardinal is helped towards his fate by a skeleton who mockingly wears the red hat, while a dying king's barrel of gold coins is looted by yet another skeleton.
In the second detail of Bruegel's crowded and frightening vision of the inevitability of death, a dinner has been broken up by the intrusion of the army of Death and the diners are putting up a futile resistance. They have drawn their swords in order to fight the skeletons dressed in winding-sheets; no less hopelessly, the jester takes refuge beneath the dinner table. The backgammon board and the playing cards have been scattered, while a skeleton thinly disguised with a mask empties away the wine flasks (no more partying). Above, a woman is being embraced by a skeleton in a hideous parody of after-dinner amorousness.