Chapter Eight


As Charles de Tolnay long ago pointed out “two iconographical traditions are here
combined: the Italian idea of the Triumph of Death by an unknown master (Galleria
Regionale, Palermo) and the northern conception of the Dance of Death” (97)  Although
there is no reason to refute what is clearly an observational fact by de Tolnay; as this
paper has shown and emphasised, the ‘Triumph of Death’ goes beyond the traditional
interpretations. However, the two iconographical themes do form the key to
understanding the ‘Triumph of Death’ and remain essential to the basic meaning.

It was stressed in chapter two, that attitudes to death in the late middle-ages
were shaped by the Christian Church, whose vision of the afterlife was dominated by
the ‘Last Judgement’. Sin, death and Judgement were undoubtedly something of a
medieval obsession, which as noted earlier led to complex expressions of piety
through fear of purgatory and hell. The fact that alms giving, fasting and prayer could
reduce one’s time in purgatory and even save one from hell, was of no consolation to
those who feature in the ‘Triumph of Death’.  To a point, the ‘Triumph of Death’ does partly a reflection of the Church’s message of sin, death and Judgement. To Grossmann, the ‘Triumph of Death’ was a reflection of this Christian message

“In accordance with Christian doctrine death is for Bruegel the wages of sin and
thus the men and women are not only representatives of various human occupations
and stations of life, as in the Dance of Death, but of certain sins, among which
covetousness, greed, the placing of the worldly possessions above salvation, above
faith in God seems to be the dominant one” (98)

Although, the ‘Triumph of Death’ is largely a reflection of the medieval world
in which sin and punishment were stressed, by the early 16th century, a new image of
death appeared. As Aries points out “death has changed, he no longer marched or
danced, as on the wall of The Innocents” (99). Death was no longer the unsuspecting
element of surprise “but ran, leaped, flew perpetually in motion” (100) The new
terrifying violence of death’s image was epitomised by Holbein’s ‘Dance of Death’
series as discussed in chapter four (fig 9)  As highlighed within this chapter, Bruegel certain drew inspiration from Holbein’s work. However, it is clear that when Bruegel himself translated these images to his own new version – the results were more convincing and more frightening. Marijnissen goes as far to say that

“the terrifying hallucinations revealed in the details from the Triumph of Death
are far more macabre than any modern work”

The influence of Hieronymus Bosch, which has been discussed at length in
chapter five, undoubtedly played a vital role in the overall doomsday effect in the
‘Triumph of Death’. However, apart from the ingenious motifs which he borrowed, it
was stressed that differences in their work were essentially between fantasy and
realism. As James Snyder puts it:

“The bitter taste of Bosch’s apocalyptic pictures is fully captured in the
Triumph of Death, but not surrealistic world of demons” (102)

Chapter Six, which looks at other sources that may have been an influence in the
‘Triumph of Death’ introduced two main aspects; the possible links with Italian art
and Bruegel’s fascination with landscapes- Although the sources for Bruegel’s
‘Triumph of Death’ have been stressed throughout this paper, it is fair to say that they
have in no way been exhausted in this dissertation. For example, Bruegel’s works are
often linked to the cultural aspects at that time, especially the ‘redirijkers’ – the
rhetoricians, which are best described as drama societies. In Marijnissen’s opinion of
the cultural aspects of the Netherlands he suggests that

“The sixteenth century in general was given to moralising; in fact, for us this is
one of the less attractive characteristics of Bruegel’s contemporaries, which
sometimes mars otherwise admirable passages of literature. Chronicles, Lampoons,
plays, farces – all literature in fact – are full of proverbs and precepts, relevant or
irrelevant” (103)

Despite this somewhat personal view, Bruegel’s works are usually linked to
contemporary literature and the cultural aspects of Netherlandish society. However,
given the subject matter it is reasonable to suggest that the ‘Triumph of Death’ is largely an exception to the rule in that it looks to the medieval world. Nevertheless,
as Delevoy points out, the ‘Triumph of Death’ and the ‘Dance of Death’ are both “employed to paraphrase a local proverb: Theghens de doot en is gheen verweeren
weapons count for nought when death assails (104)

Although most tend to accept without comment, de Tolnay’s suggestion that the
‘Triumph of Death’ is made up from two iconographical traditions, Keith Moxey
pointed out in 1973 that the ‘Triumph of Death’ contains a “third element” which had
not yet been “commented upon” (105)  In his article “The Fates and Pieter Bruegel’s
Triumph of Death” , Moxey explores the mythological aspect of the ‘Fates’ which he
remarks is personified by:

“The female figure lying on the ground, who is about to be trampled by the
horse pulling the cart of skulls, holds a spindle in her hand and a pair of shears, with
which she is about to cut the thread, in her right” 106 (fig 27)

Derived from Greek mythology and known as ‘Moirea’ in Greek – the ‘Fates’
are three goddesses who determine human life and destiny. Moxey implies, that the
women (goddess Atropos) who is on the “verge of cutting the thread is a visual
metaphor of the physical death that is soon to overtake her” . Although, this detail is
small, it does emphasise Bruegel’s knowledge of Classical literature”. Furthermore,
it adds another dimension to the richness of interpretation and to the genius of Bruegel’s work.

As the possible religious and political aspects of the ‘Triumph of Death” have
been discussed in depth, there seems little need to reiterate what has already been
covered. Nevertheless, there are “frequent attempts to discover overt anti – Spanish
and anti – Catholic propaganda in Bruegel’s later paintings” (108)  However, as G Martin

“while there is evidence of Protestant sympathy and of a fear of official
displeasure at work that he had retained in his studio, there is nothing to suggest that
he was ever persecuted” (109)

Despite Peter Thon’s brilliant article which offers a convincing and refreshing
way of looking at the ‘Triumph of Death’, as Thon concluded himself such an
interpretation “cannot be proven conclusively” (110).

This paper has shown that Bruegel’s ‘Triumph of Death’ has many
interpretations. The fact that there are so many interpretations is perhaps due to the
sheer number of isolated scenes and details, that stretch corner to corner.
Unfortunately, the length and scope of the dissertation could only cover a limited
amount, especially regarding the numerous details which have not been discussed.
However, it is hoped that what has been covered gives the reader a greater
understanding of the ‘Triumph of Death’, particularly when it is viewed in the light of
attitudes towards death in the late middle-ages. Although, it could be classed as
Bruegel’s anthology to representations of death in that era, it should be remembered
as a product of the 16th century.

“only a very great genius could have associated in so masterly a manner the
heritage of rnedievaldom with the spirit of the Renaissance” (111)

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