Tales of Despair: The Triumph of Death

I am no student of art, and I know little of the medium and its history. However, I came across this painting some years ago, and even to my untrained eye it is exceptional for its time.

Pieter Bruegel (1525 – 1569) was a Flemish painter at the height of the Renaissance, when secular art began to be accepted in European culture, and people suddenly started painting people and fish, and not just god. Bruegel in particular has become renown for his paintings of everyday life, depicting peasants, hunters and even beggars, working hard to capture the scenes all around him (a kind of 16th-century George Bellows). In many of his works, however, he allowed fantasy to creep into the scenes, such as Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.

Detail showing a king, all his riches powerless to slow the advance of time, and the coming of his death.

Still, none of his paintings (including Dull Gret) come nearly as close to the dark and twisted nature of The Triumph of Death. This is a massive work – the original is some five feet across – and it portrays hundreds of figures, fallen upon by an army of death. There is too much here to even begin to go into, so complex is the entire painting, but there are some points within it that genuinely stand out to me.

Overall, it seems painting seems to emphasize death as the lord of all – kings and peasants as one fall victim to its clutches. In one corner, a great king, cape in ruins, cannot prevent a grinning skeleton from pillaging his gold. As a reminder of his despair, a second skeleton holds up an hourglass, driving home the fact that he will not long last in this world.

Detail showing a man and woman playing music, unaware of death mocking them behind; a moment of black humor in an otherwise bleak work.

The detail of the agony and despair in this painting is astonishing, and excruciating; every inch of canvas is covered by death. Even where there are people yet alive, death is yet hounding them. In one small detail, a man, stripped and naked, seeks refuge from the horror by hiding under the roots of a tree. It is, of course, futile – a spear protrudes from his back. In another, a man fleeing desperately, is set upon by the starved hounds of hell, while a skeleton looks on nonchalantly, waiting as they take down their prey. In particular, though, I am drawn to a small detail that shows two people – perhaps the only people in the entire painting – who seem unaware, or unaffected, by the death and torture around them. The man is playing a lute; the woman is singing from a songbook with him. The man looks worried, as though he perhaps should be thinking about something other than their music, but the woman rests a reassuring hand on his shoulder, and carries a calming expression, as though music is untouchable by death. In an inspired moment of irony, Bruegel adds a skeleton, hiding behind them, accompanying them both on the fiddle.

Church – and god – are no escape for the coming of death.

Though the Renaissance was, of course, a time of artistic awakening, religion was nonetheless and inescapable and fundamental part of culture, and every person’s life. Prayer, and the hope of an afterlife, was often the only consolation for peasants who slaved for a lord, starved, and grew ill with terrible disease. For Bruegel, however, even the church is unable to give deliverance from death; in what may have been nearly heretical at the time, he depicts the skeleton army invading the house of god, desecrating its windows, drowning people in its river, and mockingly calling the ring of silver trumpets. To the right, a very large portion of the canvas is given to showing the skeletons herding people in droves into a cross-embossed box, while their armies await on either side, holding shields bearing crucifixes. It is as though Bruegel was verily denouncing religion itself as false hope of life.

The scene is a grim twist on the artist’s nature and style. Whilst many of his works depict ordinary scenes of peasant life, here he takes a scene from almost every class imaginable, and treats them to the same horror and finality. The princes and the poor, the pious and the sinners, all succumb alike. In the distance, the fires of hell glow bright, while skeletons ring a great funeral bell. Ships burn on the horizon, and the earth is barren of all growth. The only life that seems to persist are the crows, likened as always to companions of death.

In Bruegel’s eye, death spares no one, and nothing. By the river, a large whale or dolphin lies butchered, and in the distance, skeletons hack at the few remaining trees. However, the true depth of the artist’s horror, and the epitome of death’s cruelty, is in a small detail at the bottom of the painting. Prostrate, a mother lies dying, her bundled infant dead in her arms. The true ghastliness of this scene, though, and the terrible truth of death, is the skeletal hound of hell, feasting on the dead child’s flesh.

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2 thoughts on “Tales of Despair: The Triumph of Death

  1. I may incorporate this painting into a soliloquy for this next book project I’m working on, as an extended metaphor or something. It’s such a pleasure to read your blog though, I always learn something new.

    • This painting came up in my long-ago internet ramblings about death, and it’s stayed with me ever since. I’m really not into art, but there was something dangerous and unavoidable about this painting.

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