Probably one of the most iconic and frightening paintings ever made, The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder is not for the faint-hearted. Dated circa 1562, it ranks among the most terrifying artworks of its age, and the centuries since have not seen its decline in that regard. In fact, it was not until Goya's 1810-20 Disasters of War that there was anything in European arts equivalent to the savage depiction of hell on Earth in this artwork.
Today, The Triumph of Death hangs at The Museo del Prado in Madrid, directly across from Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights. Since Bruegel was viewed by his contemporaries as "the second Bosch", these two paintings make for suitable companions.
Since this masterpiece recently went through a successful restoration process, we've decided that this would be a great time to get better acquainted with what is by far the most important artwork associated with the enigmatic Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Despite the immense popularity Pieter Bruegel the Elder enjoys today, art historians know amazingly little about him. In fact, both when he was born and where is open to debate. The first documentary trace of his existence is his 1551 signature in the Antwerp artist's guild of St. Luke.
It makes sense that he was a successful printmaker before turning to painting in the 1550s, as well as the fact that he was neither a peasant nor of noble birth. Throughout his life, as evidenced by his preserved artworks, Pieter Bruegel the Elder had a clientele of well-connected patrons.
Finally, we know that Pieter Bruegel the Elder died in Brussels in 1569, as evidenced by a church monument that Jan Bruegel, the painter's son, erected for his parents.
As a consequence of simply knowing too little about the artist, it's hard to tell whether the scenes in this painting were purely imagined, taken from earlier artists' oeuvres or based on eyewitness observations of war atrocities.
Perhaps the most likely scenario is that it was the combination of all three.
In this, dare we call it, moral work, the triumph of Death over earthly things is primarily expressed by a large army of skeletons razing the Earth.
In the foreground of the scene in the painting, Death leads his armies from his reddish horse and is effortlessly destroying the world of the living. The background is as nightmarish as the rest of the composition as a barren landscape features scenes of destruction and carnage.
Instead of providing the viewers with some glimpse of hope, surviving humans are led to an enormous coffin and have no real chance of salvation.
Among those depicted, there are both rich and poor. Some attempt to struggle against the dark destiny that befell them while others are resigned to their fate. Only a pair of lovers, located at the lower right, manages to keep their calm in face of the fate they too will have to suffer, looking away from all the tragedy going on around them.
Although hard to look at due to its content, this painting depicts a fairly common theme in medieval arts and literature: the dance of Death, a scene frequently used by Northern artists as a way of dealing with the concept of death.
Bruegel made the decision to cast the entire work in a reddish-brown tone, giving the scene an infernal aspect which is, after all, quite appropriate for the subject at hand. Just by simply glancing over it, it becomes immediately clear why Pieter Bruegel the Elder was considered to be the second artistic coming of Hieronymus Bosch. This is perhaps best demonstrated by the profusion of scenes and the overall moralizing sense.
The Museo del Prado recently presented Pieter Bruegel's The Triumph of Death following the painting's successful restoration. It was one of the most significant last year's restoration processes initiated by the program sponsored by Fundación Iberdrola España.
The restoration of this exceptional painting, which was undertaken by María Antonia López de Asiain (in charge of the pictorial surface) and José de la Fuente (responsible for the painting's support), has both reinstated its structural stability and its original colors. The unique pictorial technique has also been restored, the one based on precise brushstrokes in the background areas and remarkable crispness in the foreground planes.
The original painting was, unfortunately, concealed under a large amount of re-painting from different earlier restoration attempts which were subsequently disguised by colored varnishes that produced a uniform effect. This was the reason why the painting’s appearance was transformed into an almost monochrome tone.
Luckily, infra-red reflectography and a detailed examination of the copies made by Bruegel’s sons have made it possible to correctly reintegrate petite lost elements that were lost during incorrect reconstructions of the image's earlier restorations.
As a result, we can now finally say that, after more than four centuries, The Triumph of Death is now finally back to its original state.
Certainly one of the most intriguing aspects of Bruegel's masterpiece, given its theme and the time at which it was made, is that there's an obvious lack of Christian iconography. Salvation through Christ, the fundamental message in many other medieval pictures that warn of death's inevitability, is completely missing here.
Instead, the hope for salvation is substituted by a resounding overtone of taunting nihilism. This is perhaps best illustrated by the pulling on a black bell by a pair of skeletons in the upper left corner - instead of ringing out the triumph of the Second Coming of Christ, the skeleton duo instead rejoices in the fact humanity is doomed.
Editors’ Tip: Bruegel in Detail
Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525– 1569), known for his beautiful landscapes and peasant scenes, is among the most popular artists in the history of Netherlandish painting. Reproducing all of Bruegel’s best-known paintings, drawings, and prints, this book reveals them as never before, in stunning large close-up details that showcase his mastery.
Back in the 19th century, Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt ridiculed Bruegel by describing him as a crude and vulgar painter. The same quality that Burkhardt mocked, described as the readiness to include realism and seasonal atmosphere into his moral tales, is precisely what makes Pieter Bruegel the Elder so beloved today.
Ultimately, not only does The Triumph of Death clearly illustrate that death is inevitable and unsparing of both society high and low, but it also shows that death is perversely creative as well. And, quite frankly, we're unsure of whether the acts themselves or the creativity behind them are more terrifying.
Featured image: Pieter Bruegel the Elder - The Triumph of Death, via wikimedia.org. All images used for illustrative purposes only.