The Worlds of All Against All 1540-1648

The Dutch master Peter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569) depicts “The Triumph of Death” in this 1562 oil painting, which portrays humanity’s losing battle against an onslaught of skeleton soldiers. Expanding on an artistic motif that appeared after the Black Death, which erupted in 1348 and may have killed up to 40% of the population, the painting horrifies its audience with a vista of inescapable suffering. Bruegel’s inspiration for this oeuvre was his own contemporary world, engulfed in interminable religious warfare that killed up to ten million soldiers and civilians between 1540-1648.

The viewer’s eye darts around an apocalyptic landscape marred by fire and bloodshed, taking in the overlapping scenes of execution, disembowelment, abduction, and torment. Death himself, wielding a scythe astride an emaciated red horse, rallies his skeleton legions from over the hills, urging them on as they corral the living into a gigantic coffin marked with a cross, to the right of the scene. Known for his expert portrayal of Dutch peasantry, Bruegel populates this scene with realistic, detailed figures from all walks of life—also including brightly-clad aristocrats, an ermine-robed king, the religious, and even infants—highlighting Death’s universality and inescapability. As a moral work, the scene of carnage challenges its audience’s beliefs in Crown and Church, suggesting bleakly that none of these institutions can save the soul. Small curiosities, such as a skeleton masquerading in a human mask , reveal the fantasist and macabre influence of master Hieronymus Bosch on sixteenth-century Dutch views of the world.

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