Pieter Bruegel ‘The Triumph of Death” Sources and Interpretation’ by Andrew Mark Algar

“The theme of ‘Triumph of Death’ is obvious, on the one hand, individual man’s inescapable fate; on the other, the attempts of the ordinary mortal to evade it” (2)

This is perhaps the most simplistic sentiment ever made about a panel that expresses an encyclopaedia of thoughts (fig 1). Unfortunately from the time it was painted in circa 1562, until the early 20th century, the ‘Triumph of Death’, along with Bruegel’s other works, has received little comment by art historians (3). The revived popularity of Bruegel in the 20th century has led to a number of interpretations from religious to political, throwing much greater light of this painting along with his other works.  Despite the complexities of detail that fill nearly every space across the panel, its interpretation is perhaps easier to decipher than one would imagine. However, this is not in any way to underestimate the genius that Bruegel has shown in piecing together this masterpiece, only that the best way to view this panel is to keep in mind that it is made up of a series of separate scenes and isolated events.

The ‘Triumph of Death’ should be viewed as straddling two worlds, that of the late medieval and the early modern period.  Nevertheless, when considering the iconography, it is to the late medieval world that one turns to draw a greater understanding of the overall imagery. Charles de Tolnay long ago pointed out in 1935, that the painting represents a combination of two iconographic traditions, the Italian ‘Triumph of Death’ and the Northern ‘Dance of Death’ (4).  Both traditions stem from the late medieval period and can still be found in surviving poems, prose works, manuscripts, printed books, wall paintings, frescoes, as well as engravings and woodcuts.

Aim and Purpose

The aim and purpose of this paper is to bring together the comments and ideas of others and to draw parallels that are often made concerning Bruegel’s possible sources for the ‘Triumph of Death’. Although opinions as to its interpretation do not vary a great deal, little has been written since 1973 about the broader aspects of the iconography (5).  It is the objective of this dissertation to do so, with a view to achieving a greater insight of one of Bruegel’s most intriguing works.

This paper is comprised of several chapters, starting with a brief historical survey of the background to the Netherlands in the first half of the 16th century.  The discussion moves on to Western European attitudes towards death in the later middle-ages with emphasis on the two concepts that primarily form the ‘Triumph of Death’ noted by De Tolnay, namely the Italian ‘Triumph of Death’ and the Northern ‘Dance of Death’. Continuing with the ‘Dance of Death’ theme, it is necessary to introduce Hans Holbein’s own version, as it became very popular from the mid-16th century on, so much so, Bruegel himself exploited certain imagery from it to form his own ‘Dance of Death’, just as he exploited other sources, principally, late medieval fresco painting.  This paper will strongly suggest that the works of Hieronymus Bosch, active between circa 1470 to 1516, became an equally influential source of material to Bruegel, along with other works of Northern European artists.  The concluding chapter, considers the controversial theory of Peter Thon who believes that the true meaning behind the ‘Triumph of Death’ can be found in the contemporary religious and political events of the Netherlands in the late 1560’s.

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