Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Triumph of Death (1562)

(Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain)

This harrowing depiction of a hell on Earth is a rather gruesome painting by Brueghel. A landscape, blackened, desolate and devoid of any life as far as the eye can see. Even the sea is littered with shipwrecks. In this landscape an army of skeletons advances upon the living, being killed in all sort of ways. This subject is a so-called 'Dance of Death', a late-medieval allegory on the universality of death: no matter one's station in life, the Dance of Death unites all. We can see this also in this painting - we can see a king (lower left), soldiers (lower right), children (center), a cardinal (to the right of the king, a skeleton is wearing his red hat). At the top of the painting ships are aflame or sunk in a harbor while smoke rises from distant towers. This temporal plot point is especially chilling, for it suggests death has been marauding across the countryside for days, if not weeks, and has nowhere been halted. Indeed, the army appears unstoppable. Spread along the painting we can also see aspects of everyday life in the sixteenth century: on the death cart a skeleton is playing a hurdy-gurdy while in the right corner we can see playing cards and backgammon. Also noticeable is the absence of the Salvation through Christ. This painting was created in a period when Dutch revolt (the so-called 80-years war, 1568-1648) was about to start. A Spanish-directed terror campaign against Protestants and other heretics had already been in effect for decades and Brueghel was probably 'inspired' by this. This painting was created in 1562.

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