Chapter Six


The main sources and inspiration for Bruegel’s ‘Triumph of Death’ have so far been
discussed in depth under their respective chapter headings. This chapter is a more
general look at other possible sources which Bruegel may have been influenced by
directly and indirectly.

Bruegel’s links with Italian art seem well founded, as previously suggested by
the evidence found in medieval frescoes at Pisa and Palermo (figs 5 & 6). To Bruegel’s
northern predecessors and contemporary artists, a trip to Rome seemed the necessary
pilgrimage for ambitious young artists. Not to study medieval frescoes (67), which were
seemingly ancient looking compared to the art of the High Renaissance, found in the
works of Raphael (1483-1520), but to become acquainted with the latest artistic
developments in Italian art represented by Michelangelo (1475-1564). The influences
of Italian painting in Netherlandish art in the first half of the 16th century is
evident by the so-called style of ‘Romanists’ such as Bernard van Orley (circa.1488-1541)
and Maerten van Heemskerck (1498-1574) 68.  Despite these imitators of the
Italianate style along with other northern artists, Bruegel chose not to imitate such a
style but instead to remain faithful to his northern roots (69).

As previously discussed at length, the influence of Hieronymus Bosch in
Bruegel’s painted works of 1562 is undeniable. However, it has also been shown that
such strong influences were in the main, due to the designs he drew for the Antwerp
engraver and print-seller – Hieronymus Cock (fig 19). It was from his shop called
‘Aux Quatre Vents’ (At the Sign of the Four Winds) that Cock cashed in on the
popularity of Bosch decades following his death in 1516.  The Boschian designs that
Bruegel produced for ‘Aux Quatre Vents’ were just a small part of the many other
designs and works that he drew for Cock. For example, the Alpine sketches that
Bruegel had executed in the early 1550’s, whilst on his travels to Italy, went to form
part of a ‘Large Landscapes Series’(fig 25)  The fact that Hieronymus Cock published
this series into a twelve part package a few years later in 1555, suggest the increasing
popularity of landscape scenes.

The ‘Large Landscape Series’ is also a clear example of Bruegel’s early
fascination with landscape. This interest in landscape was to remain with him
throughout his entire career and as noted by Carel van Mander in his biography of

“On his journeys Bruegel did many views from nature so that it was said of
him, when he travelled through the Alps, that he had swallowed all the mountains and
rocks and spat them out again, after his return, on to his canvases and panels, so
closely was he able to follow nature here and in her other works” 70.

Aside from Carel van Mander’s statement, it is clearly evident from Bruegel’s
surviving works that his interest in landscape was a very prominent part of his style.
Nevertheless, as noted earlier, the character of the barren fiery landscape in the
‘Triumph of Death’ appears more in keeping with Boschian hell scenes (figs 8 & 22).
However, as Cuttler noted, the rock outcrop on the right hand-side of the panel is
characteristic of the traditional landscapes produced by the Antwerp school which
was founded by the Joachim Patinir (71). In fact, given that nearly half of Bruegel’s
surviving works can be ‘classified as landscapes of one sort or another’ (72), it is of no
surprise to find the Antwerp school a source of influence on Bruegel.

The landscape in the ‘Triumph of Death’ has the effect of a doomsday scenario
which is both convincing as it is compelling. Almost all traces of vegetation have
disappeared with perhaps the exception of a clump seen in the top right hand corner.
Nearly every surface of earth has the appearance of being scorched and burnt, leaving
only its bleak charred remains which are largely barren and parched. Not only are
several rotting carcasses both human and animal, littered amongst the mayhem of
death’s final onslaught, it seems even the bare and leafless trees beneath the tolling
bell face their ultimate end in a final blow from death’s axe (fig 26) Not even the pitiless victim whose attempt to conceal himself in the hollow of a rotten tree above
the sinister death hatch can escape the clutches of this relentless onslaught (fig 15)

Given this was an age that had witnessed various horrors, the most poignant
aspects of the ‘Triumph of Death’ seem to be the inclusion of 16th century realism,
which can be seen in the collective massacres, the gallows that hang, the wheels of
death, the beheading of a praying martyr, a victim burnt at the stake and the solemn
tolling of death’s bell (73). To Bruegel’s contemporaries, such gruesome realism was
probably known all too well, as his early drawing of ‘Justice’ testifies (fig 2). Gibson
points out:

“if these incidents seem unduly harsh to us, they were accepted by Bruegel’s
contemporaries as necessary to maintain public law and order” (74)

As this last statement and the drawing of ‘Justice’ suggest, the sources for ‘Triumph of Death’ stemmed from numerous ideas. The grisly horrors reflected in
the ‘Triumph of Death’ have been consistently emphasised throughout this paper as a
mixture of realism and late medieval art. Whether, it acts as a ‘Dance of Death’
synthesised with the Christian vision of hell, the ‘Triumph of Death’ is a complex
work with a web of different influences and thoughts. From Alpine sketches to
instruments of state torture, Bruegel’s work represents a horrifying end to humanity.
Despite the fact that the drawing of ‘Justice’ is symbolic of virtue, which was needed
to ‘maintain public law, Bruegel time and time again includes the terror and realism
of 16th century Europe. The question to ask is why? Zupnick, believes that the
drawing of ‘Justice’ – ‘reflects Bruegel’s ambivalence towards current happenings,
condemning the militancy of heretics but also condemning the harshness of the justice
that meted out’ (75)  This religious and political interpretation has been suggested by
Peter Thon as the key to understanding the ‘ambivalence’ shown in the ‘Triumph of

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