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Analysis of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “The Triumph of Death”

Analysis of Pieter Bruegel the Elder's "The Triumph of Death"

Analysis of Pieter Bruegel the Elder's "The Triumph of Death"

Picture an army of skeletons wreaking havoc and stealing, killing, and robbing everything in sight. While the premise of this article may seem ridiculous at first, The Triumph of Death (c.1562) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder brings the concept to life.

What Do We Know About Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the Artist?
Northern Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder was probably born in the Dutch city of Breda or a neighbouring town. It is believed that he was born somewhere between 1525 and 1530.

Amid addition to depicting biblical and mythical scenes, he is most renowned for his paintings of common folk, often peasants, in expansive landscapes.

How to Find the Subject of Your Own Paintings: The Focal Point

He apparently trained under Pieter Coecke van Aelst and later joined the Antwerp branch of the Guild of St. Luke. The date of his death has been set as September 9, 1569, however the circumstances surrounding his demise remain unknown. The Tower of Babel (1563), The Hunters in the Snow (1565), and The Peasant Wedding (1566) are just a few of his well-known works (1566-1569).

The Triumph of Death
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Painter and the Buyer (c. 1566);  Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Public domain, through Wikimedia Commons.

Historical Context for Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Triumph of Death (c. 1562)

Among the numerous landscape landscapes populated by characters by the Dutch painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder is The Triumph of Death. An introduction of the topic’s social context is provided below, along with a short outline of the Northern Renaissance and its influences. The next step is a formal analysis, which will consider both the subject matter and the artist’s style.

  • Pieter Bruegel the Elder, an artist
  • Date Circa 1562, painted
  • Genre oil painting on panel
  • Time frame / Change in circumstance
  • North European Revival (Dutch)
  • 117 x 162 centimetres in size; no series or version designations.
  • Which Building Does It Reside In?
  • National Museum of Art Prado, Madrid, Spain
  • Its Value
  • Explicit pricing information is currently unavailable.

In-Context Analysis: A Quick Sociological Synopsis

Before proceeding, it is helpful to have a basic familiarity with the Northern areas during the Renaissance period, as this will help put Pieter Bruegel the Elder in context as one of the most prominent Northern Renaissance painters, notably a Dutch artist.

The Northern Renaissance, as it is often known, began in the 1400s, or the 15th century, and it differs stylistically and thematically from the Italian Renaissance. However, it must be emphasised that the Northern areas were also inspired by the Italian Renaissance, although in their own unique ways.

In addition to the Catholic Church’s impact and patronage of Italian art, the Protestant Reformation also shaped the way painters in the North saw their subjects, leading to a style that is less ostentatious and more grounded in a sense of modesty.

The Triumph of Death
Public domain image of “Peasant Wedding” by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1566–1569) from Wikimedia Commons.

Paintings depicting commoners, aristos, landscapes, animals, and plants, as well as images from the Bible or stories with moral implications, were all shown in a more realistic or naturalistic light in the North. That’s in contrast to the Italian style, which favoured mythical and biblical motifs and methods like linear perspective.

What really set paintings from the Northern Renaissance apart, however, was their meticulous attention to detail, which made the depicted scenes seem as if they had been snapped at a particular point in time. This is comparable to the principles of beauty in Italian art.

Jan van Eyck, whose The Arnolfini Portrait (1434) is an example of Northern Renaissance art, Albrecht Dürer, whose studies of nature include Young Hare (1502) and The Large Piece of Turf (1503), and Rogier van der Weyden, whose Descent from the Cross (1503) is also an example of Northern Renaissance art (c. 1430-1435).

The Triumph of Death
On the top left is Jan van Eyck The Arnolfini Portrait from 1434; the painting is in the public domain and was obtained via Wikimedia Commons.
The Triumph of Death
The Young Hare (1502), by  Albrecht Dürer (top right); Albrecht Dürer; Public domain; Wikimedia Commons.
The Triumph of Death
ABOVE: Descent From the Cross, a painting by Rogier van der Weyden, (c. 1430-1435); Rogier van der Weyden, Public domain, through Wikimedia Commons.

The Music of the Dead Dance

The Black Death, which ravaged Europe and the rest of the globe from roughly the year 1347 to the early 1350s, may have been alluding to in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s work The Triumph of Death, which he was famous for painting because of its moral message.

The Danse Macabre (literally “Dance of Death”) was a genre of Medieval and Middle Ages art, literature, and music that dealt with death and its inevitable nature and the mortality of humans; it is likely that this theme played a significant role in the development of the painting The Triumph of Death.

The Latin term “remember you shall die” describes this concept as well: memento mori.

Skeletons typically herald the end of life or the last destination of the living in depictions of the Dance of Death. Skeletons might sometimes be seen dancing with the living. All socioeconomic strata would be represented among the living, serving as a sobering reminder that death is impartial. There was a distinct ironic tone to the gruesome imagery.

The Triumph of Death
From the Liber Chronicarum, the Latin copy of the Nuremberg Chronicles, 1493, comes this image of dancing skeletons, sometimes known as the “Dance of Death.” See page for authorCC BY 4.0,

How did these factors play towards Death’s ultimate victory?

The Italian version of The Triumph of Death (c. 1440-1445), a fresco originally from the Palazzo Sclafani in Palermo, Italy, and currently housed at the Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo, is also said to have inspired Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Triumph of Death.

Several painters have been suggested as the creators of the “mystery” artwork, but the credit for it remains unclear.

The main focus of the fresco is an enormous, gaunt horse being ridden by a skeleton, probably Death, who is armed with a huge bow and arrow. The surrounding figures come from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds. There are individuals of different social classes around the focal man on the horse in Bruegel the Elder’s picture.

The Triumph of Death
Public domain through Wikimedia Commons: Pieter Brueghel the Elder the Elder’s The Triumph of Death, c. 1562

In spite of this, it is impossible to discuss Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s work without addressing Hieronymus Bosch, whose influence can be seen in the way Bruegel the Elder painted and arranged his subject matter.

Artistically productive between the years 1400 and 1500, Dutchman Hieronymus Bosch was a member of the early Renaissance. Many critics consider him the “earliest,” “first,” and “predecessor” of Surrealism for his depictions of surreal and often gruesome subject matter.

One of his most well-known pieces, The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1490-1515), is a prime example of his imaginative representation of individuals and otherworldly objects within a tale evocative of the Biblical Adam and Eve and Hell, as well as themes of creation, temptation, sin, and judgement.

The Triumph of Death
Image: Tulip Hysteria / Go to albumsCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons, from Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1490-1515).

Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted The Triumph of Death more than 50 years after Bosch’s death in 1516, thus he would have had several opportunities to see Bosch’s works. It has also been said that several reproductions of Bosch’s masterpieces might be found. Art historian Joseph Leo Koerner compares and contrasts Bosch and Bruegel in his 2016 book Bosch & Bruegel: From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life, focusing on the ways in which Bruegel the Elder’s work progressed beyond the subjects that Bosch had originally addressed.

Koerner called the latter “enemy painting” because of its images of virtue and evil, including the Devil. Unlike Bosch, Bruegel the Elder’s paintings focused on ordinary life and its inhabitants—many of whom were peasants—without the presence of a clear antagonist.

Both artists, however, used personification to explore the “mundane” and the many facets of human nature. Bruegel the Elder is known for his depictions of human nature and foibles in works like The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (1559) and The Netherlandish Proverbs (1559). Even more characteristic of daily life and full of rejoicing, the peasants are shown in The Wedding Dance (1566).

The Triumph of Death
Public domain print of “The Netherlandish Proverbs” by  Pieter Brueghel the Elder(1559) available at Wikimedia Commons.

Koerner’s arguments are more involved, but the main point is that Bruegel the Elder and Hieronymus Bosch share conceptual similarities, as well as the famed panoramic perspectives, attention to detail, and jam-packed compositional spaces that have become Bosch hallmarks.

In the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, Spain, you can see both “The Triumph of Death” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymus Bosch.

An Overview of the Composition’s Formal Analysis

It’s easy to become lost in the throng of skeletons in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Triumph of Death if you don’t know what you’re looking at or what it all means. In the next section, we’ll take a closer look at the piece, discussing its subject matter in addition to its formal art aspects and ideas.

Theme: Descriptive Images

A huge, nearly bird’s-eye perspective of an apocalyptic scene is shown in the artwork “The Triumph of Death,” complete with flames, black plumes of smoke, charred corpses, and a natural ecosystem turned upside down. Pain, devastation, and cold blooded murder are the norm.

In case you’re confused about where to begin, let’s break the picture down into thirds, beginning with the foreground, which is packed with bones, people, animals, and all kind of mundane objects.

Candlesticks, caskets, currency barrels, a skeleton-drawn waggon, musical instruments, card and board games, apparel, weaponry, and more are just a few examples. A structure, maybe a church, with a little body of water to the left of the frame. Dead fish are seen floating on land. Larger-than-life versions of several fish are seen.

The Triumph of Death
The Elder, Pieter, The Triumph of Death, c. 1562;  Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Public domain, through Wikimedia Commons.

More people may be seen dispersed around the centre ground, which is an earthy, dry landscape with a few tiny hills. Others are in a huge group off to the left, while others are wandering aimlessly or are being hunted by skeletons.

The seaside forms the distant backdrop, and to the left are other hills that may be connected to those in the foreground.

The Triumph of Death
Background detail from; Pieter Brueghel the Elder,‘s The Triumph of Death (c. 1562); Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Public domain, through Wikimedia Commons.

There are many flaming ships in the water beyond, as well as what looks like a church and some structures on the other side of the embankments to the left, and a blazing building farther up the hill.

The Triumph of Death
Background detail from; Pieter Brueghel the Elder,‘s The Triumph of Death (c. 1562); Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Public domain, through Wikimedia Commons.


In Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Triumph of Death, the landscape looks to be spacious and vast from above. Further, the artist used almost two-thirds of the compositional area to depict continuous motion.

Instances of Form and Shape

The arrangement of many lines into numerous shapes and forms brings the whole composition of The Triumph of Death to life. As seen in the human body, the natural terrain, and the sloping hills, some of the most prominent shapes are organic, or based on natural forms.

There is some contrast brought about by the more geometrical forms of the different buildings and structures.

Repetition and a structured appearance are established by the clusters of skeletons, some to the left and the army to the right; these elements contrast with the general disorder brought about by the wide variety of human, animal, and skeletal forms and objects.

The Triumph of Death
Images of Foto: Priscila Costa (Ministério da Cultura) / Bearbeitung: Christoph Waghubinger (Lewenstein)CC BY 2.0 Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Triumph of Death (c. 1562) from the Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain; Photo by Priscila Costa (Ministério da Cultura) and edited by Christoph Waghubinger (Lewenstein), both available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 licence on Wikimedia Commons.

An Embarrassed Bruegel

The Fundacion Iberdrola Espaa financed a thorough restoration of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Triumph of Death in May 2018. It has been said that the painting had been repaired before, and that before to the restoration it had a “black and opaque, with a hazy aspect,” yet the restoration did manage to bring out some of the original colour and detail.

When painting “The Triumph of Death,” it seems that Pieter Bruegel the Elder did not err on the side of humour. It’s unsettling at best, giving death a human face and making us all remember its brutality. Some of the caricatures portrayed and parodied may cause us to laugh in amazement or even horror, but we are soon brought back down to earth. Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “The Triumph of Death” is unflinching in its representation of death and its place in life, yet the artistry with which he rendered it nearly mitigates the impact. As a reminder of death and the absurdity of existence, the artwork was a hit with the audience.

Regularly Asked Questions

I can’t seem to find the painting of death triumphing.

Since 1827, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Triumph of Death (c. 1562) has been shown in the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, Spain. Prior to then, it was part of the holdings of different aristocracies and royal families.

Who Painted Death Reigns Supreme?

Northern Renaissance Dutch painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted “The Triumph of Death” in 1562. His genre paintings, which often featured peasants and scenic landscapes, earned him widespread renown.

In other words, what does “death ultimately triumph” mean?

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a Northern Renaissance artist, painted The Triumph of Death (c. 1562), which deals with death and was likely inspired by the Black Plague of the Middle Ages.

What are the major themes explored in “The Triumph of Death?”

The genre of the Danse Macabre (Dance of Death) was popular in the visual arts, literature, and music during the time when Pieter Bruegel the Elder created The Triumph of Death (c. 1562). It served as a sobering reminder of mortality.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Why Is He Known as Such?

Another famous painter with the surname Bruegel was the son of the elder artist Pieter Bruegel. So that no one would get the father and son painters mixed up, Pieter Bruegel the Elder was given the moniker and his son was given the name Pieter Bruegel the Younger.