Chapter Five


In Bruegel’s own lifetime, he was praised by Guicciardini as the ‘second Hieronymus Bosch’.  Despite this somewhat over-exaggeration, such a sentiment was later echoed by Domenicus Lampsonius in a short poem inscribed on an engraved portrait of Bruegel published in 1572, three years after his death (56).  Carel van Mander (57) recorded the poem in full at the end of his biography on Bruegel:

“Lampsonius addresses Bruegel in these words, beginning with a question: Who is this new Hieronymus Bosch, reborn to the world, who brings his master’s ingenious flights of fancy to life once more skilfully with brush and style that he even surpasses him? (58)

Despite this high praise, the differences between them were many (59).  Bruegel’s close stylistic mannerisms with Bosch undoubtedly derive from the designs he drew between 1556-1558 for the Antwerp engraver and print seller – Hieronymus Cock (fig 19 – Allegory of Lust).  It was actually these preliminary drawings for the etchings published by Cock that established him as the second ‘Hieronymus Bosch’, however, if all Bruegel’s painted works were as widely known as his printed works at the time, such an opinion would have been most unlikely.  To Grossmann, Bruegel’s paintings were almost exclusively executed for friends and collectors, whereas, the widely produced prints better known to the wider public established him in some peoples minds as the ‘second Bosch’ (60)  In consideration of his painted works, three including the Triumph of Death stand out as having strong Boschian influences – Fall of the Rebel Angels (fig 20) and Dulle Griet (fig 21).

Of these three works generally believed to have been painted in the same year (1562) of each other (61), the ‘Dulle Griet’ is considered by many as being the most Boschian and rightly so, when one compares it to the Triumph of Death, but to what extent?  Although there is a clear distinction between the two works with most favoring the ‘Dulle Griet’, Bosch’s influence on the ‘Triumph of Death’ it is probably underestimated. A notable example where this influence is comparable can be seen in the central triptych panel of Bosch’s ‘Haywain’, painted circa 1490-1500 (fig 22). Although the influence of the Bosch’s ‘Haywain’ is largely through several motifs that Bruegel imitates, this and other works of Bosch undoubtedly provided Bruegel with notable models.  The most comparable image used from the ‘Haywain’ is the pair of lovers seen making music in the lower right corner of Bruegel’s work (fig 13). When compared to the lovers seen in the ‘Haywain’ hay cart rolling towards hell (fig 23), there is a extremely close likeness (62), although the lovers in Bruegel’s painting form something of a ‘Dance of Death’, emphasised by a figure of ‘death’ who can be seen parodying the young lovers a sweet melody. The lovers in the ‘Haywain’ in contrast are being fought over in a spiritual battle for their souls, as death becomes imminent and the hay cart nears hell. A small but similar parallels is evident in Bruegel’s cart of death scene, which flattens its victims in a similar manner to Bosch’s hay cart, however, Bruegel’s image reflects something more sinister, reminiscent of a traveling charnel house (fig 11).

Other parallels that suggest that Bruegel imitated what he saw in the ‘Haywain’ is strongly evident in the foreground, where a victim of senseless murder is having his throat severely slashed (fig 22).  A similar image can be seen in the foreground of Bruegel’s painting, beneath an ominous looking coffin in which appears a tiny slumped baby alongside a fully shrouded adult figure.  In contrast to Bosch, Bruegel’s murderer is symbolised by a figure of death. Furthermore, the wide-eyed victim of this gruesome scene is made all the more poignant because the victim is a pilgrim, evident by the many pilgrimage badges seen attached to the victim’s cap close by (fig 12)

In an allegorical sense, the ‘Haywain’ is a triumph of avarice, symbolised an old Netherlandish proverb where ‘the world is a haystack and everyone snatches what he can from it’ (64). In contrast, Bruegel symbolises, the triumphant omnipotence of deaths terrifying power. Although both works are essentially different, it would not be too unreasonable to suggest that both works also share much in common. Apart from the points made above and the basic fact that both works transcend social status and class, both works also share a similar conclusion – in that the fate of humanity is sealed.

Further evidence to suggest that Bruegel was influenced by Bosch can be seen in the hell tower image at the centre of the ‘Triumph of Death’, where the horizon is illuminated with fiery filled, sulphurous sky (fig 1).  Whilst comparable in conveying horror and torture, Bruegel omits Bosch’s famous mutant monsters, disfigured hybrid birds and morphed human beings.  If one can exclude the few that appear in the centre at the foot of hell’s tower, Bosch’s famed trademarks are all but missing.  Whilst this may have been a deliberate departure, Bruegel more than compensates for this in ‘The Fall of the Rebel Angels’ and the ‘Dulle Griet’ (figs 20 & 21) but somehow Bruegel never convincingly achieves the fantasy world that Bosch could create (fig 24 / footnote 65).

When the ‘Triumph of Death’ is compared to the characteristics found in the work of Bosch (fig 8), it does seem reasonable to suggest that Bruegel manages to convey the same impending doom and destruction.  The horrified victims of Bruegel’s ravenous, bloodthirsty army of death, appear utterly convincing in their expressions of bewilderment and hopelessness, so much so that it is easy to feel a certain pathos for their plight. This is especially prominent in the wretched figures that surround the ominous coffin in the foreground – the fallen mother who still clings to her child, the pilgrim who is brutally murdered next to them and the sorrowful friar who pleads for mercy against death’s wielding axe.

The unforgiving barbarity that Bruegel conveys in the ‘Triumph of Death’ certainly gives this panel the character that one would find in the works of Hieronymus Bosch, however, there are differences (66) Whereas in the ‘Triumph of Death’ the grisly reality of death, destruction and horror reflect a certain gruesome realism of actual life in the 16th century, Bosch’s world reflects a surrealist world of fantasy, which seems more unimaginable and less tangible. Nevertheless, it has been the purpose of this chapter to emphasise that Bosch influence in the ‘Triumph of Death’ cannot be underestimated. Although, the ‘Triumph of Death’ does not appear to represent the Boschian hell in which mutant creatures roam in a mixture of fantasy and make believe, its apocalyptic imagery does come very close to unimaginable world of a Bosch hell.

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