A bleak landscape of death and destruction confronts the viewer. An army of skeletons massacres masses of people of every age and gender. At the top of the painting, the sky is black with smoke from fires that have destroyed the landscape, as if the land had been decimated by war. Ships lie half sunken in the bay. The middle of the painting features skeletons herding masses into a spike rimmed tunnel; the door of the tunnel is marked with the holy cross of Christ. There is no suggestion of salvation however, for piles of bones, skulls, and intact skeletons fill pens and wagons, and litter the ground. In the painting’s foreground, people of high social status are sprawled dead or dying near more ordinary individuals -- king, cardinal, wanderer, lovers -- all, regardless of their social status, meet Death.


The Triumph of Death (1562) sends what seems to be a certain message: everyone must perish by the same uncaring hand of Death. Religion, the saving grace of Christ, seems little more than a joke in this macabre representation where skeletons stand enclosed by barriers bearing the holy cross. Bruegel makes no allusions to the salvation of the soul. The viewer is encouraged and even forced to face death in all its ugliness and finality.

In an era where heaven and the grace of God were axiomatic, this painting was and is shocking in its irreverence. Bruegel’s harsh imagery makes viewers confront and scrutinize their faith in religion and the eternal life of the soul.

Contrast with Simberg’s depictions of Death in "Death Listens," and "The Garden of Death" (the latter annotated this database).

Primary Source

Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen. Bruegel: The Complete Paintings. aka Pieter Bruegel the Elder: peasants, fools and demons (Köln; New York: Taschen) 2004