The Triumph of Death (Palermo)  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Triumph of Death is a fresco in the Regional Gallery of Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo, southern Italy. It is considered one of the most representative works of the late Gothic painting in Italy. The author of the work, which is dated around 1446, is unknown.


The work comes from the court of Palazzo Sclafani, also in Palermo. Due to its highly refined style, it is thought to have been commissioned directly by the Aragonese Kings of Naples, probably to a Catalan or Proven├žal artist. The theme of the "Triumph of Death" was already widespread in Europe during the 14th century, but here is represented with a particular stress on macabre and grotesque themes characterized by a cruel appearance, all features rare in Italy. Names proposed for the author include Guillaume Spicre from Bourgogne.

The fresco was stripped and divided into four parts to be housed in the Regional Gallery, where it is now located. Despite at the time of the removal the work was in good conditions, gradually during the 20th century the painted surface has detached near the points of division, compromising the integrity of the scene.


The fresco is composed as a large miniature, where in a luxurious garden surrounded by a hedge, Death enters riding a skinny horse. It is portrayed while launching deadly arrows against characters belonging to all the social levels, killing them. The horse occupies the centre of the scene, with its ribs well visible and a scrawny head showing teeth and the tongue. The Death has just released an arrow, which has hit a young man in the lower right corner; she is keeping on a side the scythe, her typical attribute.

On the lower part are the corpses of the people previously killed: emperors, popes, bishops, friars (both Franciscans and Dominicans), poets, knights and maidens. Each character is portrayed differently: some have still a grimace of pain on the face, other are serene, other have their limbs abandoned on the ground, other kneeling down after having been just struck by an arrow. On the left is the group of the poor people, invoking the Death to stop their sufferings but being ignoring. Among them, the figure looking towards the observer has been proposed as a possible self-portrait of the artist.

On the right is the group of the nobles, shown as having no interest for the events, and most of them continuing their activities. They include several musicians, richly dressed noblewomen and knights with fur clothes, as symbols of life and youth. A man is keeping a hawk on his arm, and another is leading two hounds.

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