Saturday, June 27, 2009
The Triumph of Death is an oil on panel, approximately 117 by 162 centimeters (46 x 63.8 in), painted c. 1562 by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It currently hangs in the Museo del Prado, Madrid.
The painting is a panoramic landscape of death: the sky in the distance is blackened by smoke from burning cities and the sea is littered with shipwrecks. Armies of skeletons advance on the hapless living, who either flee in terror or try vainly to fight back. Skeletons kill people in a variety of ways - slitting throats, hanging, drowning, and even hunting with skeletal dogs. In the foreground, skeletons haul a wagon full of skulls, and 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 lonely and impotent in the center of the painting. People flee into a tunnel decorated with crosses while a skeleton on horseback slaughters people with a scythe. The painting clearly depicts people of different social backgrounds - from peasants and soldiers to nobles and even a king and a cardinal - being taken by death indiscriminately.
The painting serves a useful historical purpose in that it shows aspects of everyday European life in the mid-sixteenth century. Clothes are clearly depicted, as are pastimes such as playing cards. Uniquely, the painting shows a common method of execution for sixteenth-century criminals: being lashed to a cartwheel mounted on a vertical pole. Objects such as musical instruments and an early mechanical clock, and scenes including a funeral service provide historians with a deeper understanding of the lifestyle of the 1560s.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525 – September 9, 1569) was a Netherlandish Renaissance painter and printmaker known for his landscapes and peasant scenes (Genre Painting). He is nicknamed 'Peasant Bruegel' to distinguish him from other members of the Brueghel dynasty, but is also the one generally meant when the context does not make clear which "Bruegel" is being referred to. From 1559 he dropped the 'h' from his name and started signing his paintings as Bruegel.