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 Pieter Brueghel the Older. 

The Triumph of Death. 1562.


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Video : The Triumph of Death. Pieter Bruegel the Elder. 

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Pieter Brueghel the Older. The Triumph of Death. 1562. Oil on wood.117 × 162 cm. Prado Museum. Madrid. 

This work, like Mad Meg, analysed here, and which dates from the same year, testifies to the religious conflicts and of tearing of conscience which, under the Reform, upset mentalities and social and political issues of the Netherlands.
The enormous chaos which reigns in the foreground of work, initially not easily readable by the spectator, is only the reflection, in the composition of the painting, of the disorder which reigned then at the time in this area. 
In the Netherlands, the influential enlightened middle-class which is formed during the Middle Ages made warm welcome with Protestantism. But the emperor Charles Quint, whose military power is established better on this territory than in the German States, tries to stop the progression of it while making burn the books of Luther publicly and by installing the Enquiry in 1522. A revolt, fomented by the French monarch François 1st, bursts in 1539 in Ghent and is followed of a hard repression. These measurements are however without effect and, towards half of the 16th century, Protestantism is essential in all the provinces of North, the Holland. The provinces of the South, today Belgium, remain primarily catholic. The majority of the Dutchmen embraces the Calvinism, which constitutes a powerful ideological bond in the committed national fight against the Spanish catholic sovereigns. They revolt in 1566 and the war continues until 1648, date on which Spain gives up any claim on the country in consequence of the peace of Westphalia. The Netherlands, up to that point Spanish, become an independent State then protesting. The author is not easily deceived, it knows that all the violences and the exactions made at the time come from the wars of religion. In the history of humanity at certain place and various times, it often happened that death triumphs. The madness of the men, their sectarianism and their greed always caused wars with the terrible consequences for the civil populations. Brueghel as humanistic denounces this irrefutable fact.

The horizon line is extremely high. It occupies half of the higher third of the painting. The painter wants to leave a maximum of space to the landscape and so that it occurs there. The point of view of the spectator is located just above the scenes of massacres of the foreground, at the level of the keep in flame and the cross which decorates the door that the inhabitants cross for, perhaps, to take refuge. 
In the foreground nothing guides really the glance of the spectator. This obliges it to look at the painting in detail. It is the target of the painter because work is made up of various scenes which have each one their significance. 

At Brueghel one calls “ scene grouillante ” the populated pictures of multiple characters. Close to the geographical center of the painting the death armed with a scythe is which overlaps a skeletal horse. The author uses also 3 natural points of interest. The first point in top on the left is located at the point of meeting between some villagers who try to resist and the army of dead which emerges from a crack. The second point, low, is on 2 maroon skeletons out of cassocks which trail a coffin. The third natural point of interest is the point lower right, it is located in front of the skeletal horse of dead where the corpses lie and where crowd is thrown into a panic. 

The picture is divided in 3 distinct zones. 1/ In top blue sky on the right and red on the left, from which deaths come. 
2/ In the center a quasi desert landscape populated corpses of men and animals, scenes of plunderings and tortures where have sees the army of dead approaching on 2 sides. 
3/ In the foreground the confrontation enters the army of dead and the men. The defects of the man are denounced there. This part of the picture is populated men, skeletons, animals, especially of the black birds, a dog which tries to devour a child and demons. 

The artist uses simultaneously the 2 large diagonals. The principal lines of direction go in the 2 directions. 

Light: The picture is enlightened of in top on the right.

Colours: Contrast between hot and cold colours. 4 colours are complementary.

Similar paintings :

Pieter Bruegel The Older. Mad Meg.(1562).
Clic to see Analysis.

Pieter Bruegel The Older. The Massacre of the innocent. (1565).

Felix Nussbaum. The Triumph of Death. 1944.
This picture, the last work of Felix Nussbaum, was painted in Brussels on April 18th, 1944, 2 months before its arrest and its deportation towards a Nazi concentration camp in Poland. The author knows himself condemned…

Details : 

The men are equal in front of death. The power and the money cannot anything against it. This king is at the end of the lifetime, death shows him a sand glass to show him that its time is past and seizes its money. 

For a long time the men enjoy to represent death like a reaper. It is a traditional representation. Here it does not have its black coat but it mows the lives as the men mow corn. 

Like Hieronymus Bosch in these triptychs, Brueghel denounces here the game and alcohol.

With the background, on the left, 2 skeletons sound bells attached to a tree. In the villages one sounded the bells to alert of a fire or a danger. This representation is in charge of irony.

Deaths take care of all. They dug a hole to put a coffin at it. 

With far one sees that death very envisaged. Skeletons cut trees. They need wood to carry out coffins. It is an human activity. The triumph of dead that means that deaths replace the alive ones… 
Deaths are everywhere. At the top of this tower in the middle of the ocean. They make sink the ships. They are also on the shore where the crosses are broken and replaced by pagan symbols. 

Deaths are innumerable, everywhere there are funerary ceremonies and skeletons which hide coffins or which dig holes. 

There exist multiple ways of dying. With far death seems to practice the execution, either by hanging, or by the torture of the wheel. 

Decapitation is another means of setting with death used at the time. 

This image of a death in a tree crossed the centuries. Otto Dix takes as a starting point this reason for its triptych on the war in 1929. 

Deaths are so numerous that it seems difficult to count them. 

Armed with lances deaths overlap starveling mountings and attack the villagers. 

Everywhere deaths assassinate and throw the men with water. The fish died at the edge of the shore evoke the universe of Hieronymus Bosch. 

At the foot of the tower, skeletons, draped of white, play of the horn to celebrate their triumph. 

This macabre attachment transports a cranium multitude. The back a skeleton plays of the music while with before another holds a lantern and makes tinkle the knell. A corbel is perched on the croup of the horse. A lit lantern is supposed to be used as guide with the late ones. The knell is the ringing of bell announcing the anguish, the death or funerals of a person.

An emaciated dog attacks a woman with ground which carries a child. 

This skeleton is cutting the throat of a poor devil obviously to steal his purse to him. 

2 skeletons out of cassocks transport a coffin while drawing on cords to make it roll. 

These 2 skeletons installed a fishing net to capture men. It is an ironic allusion to the fishermen of men of the new will. 

This couple seems very occupied singing. It seems completely detached of what it occurs in the neighbourhoods. But in the back of the woman a skeleton also approaches him plays of the music. It is necessary to read into dotted : Death is stronger than the love. 

This lugubrious cook brings a not very appetizing dish. It is an allusion to the poison. 
Poisoning was, at the time, a common way to die. Many litigations was regulated with poison.

To escape the fury from the army from dead the inhabitants enter what it seems to be a refuge whose door is decorated of a cross. What they do not see it is that above deaths draw on a cord which opens the door and play of the drum. This scene refers to the fact that during the wars of religion the church is not any more one refuge it can even become a trap. 

This skeleton clings to this man to make it fall. It is a parabola which expresses that death uses the least pretext to arrive to its ends. 

This man hides but its bored back of a lance shows that it is useless.
Death is inescapable.