The Triumph of Death
ArtistPieter Bruegel the Elder
Yearc. 1562
Mediumoil on panel
Dimensions117 cm × 162 cm (46 in × 63.8 in)
LocationMuseo del Prado, Madrid

The Triumph of Death is an oil panel painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted c. 1562.[1] It has been in the Museo del Prado in Madrid since 1827.[2]


The painting shows a panorama of an army of skeletons wreaking havoc across a blackened, desolate landscape. Fires burn in the distance, and the sea is littered with shipwrecks.[3]

A few leafless trees stud hills otherwise bare of vegetation. Fish lie rotting on the shores of a corpse-choked pond. Art historian James Snyder emphasizes the "scorched, barren earth, devoid of any life as far as the eye can see."[1]

In this setting, legions of skeletons advance on the living, who either flee in terror or try in vain to fight back. In the foreground, skeletons haul a wagon full of skulls. In the upper left corner, others ring the bell that signifies the death knell of the world. People are herded into a coffin-shaped trap decorated with crosses, while skeletons on horseback kill people with a scythe. This is one of four horses ridden by skeletons that are depicted in the painting, probably alluding to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The painting depicts people of different social backgrounds – from peasants and soldiers to nobles as well as a king and a cardinal – being taken by death indiscriminately.[4]

The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. 1562
Jan Brueghel's 1597 version of The Triumph of Death
1628 version of The Triumph of Death

A skeleton parodies human happiness by playing a hurdy-gurdy, while the wheels of his cart crush a man as if his life is of no importance. A woman has fallen in the path of the death cart. She has a slender thread which is about to be cut by the scissors in her other hand—Bruegel's interpretation of Atropos. Nearby, another woman in the path of the cart holds in her hand a spindle and distaff, classical symbols of the fragility of human life—another Bruegel interpretation of Clotho and Lachesis.

A starving dog nibbles at the face of a dead child lying still within its dead mother's embrace. Just beside her, a cardinal is helped towards his fate by a skeleton who mockingly wears the red hat, while a dying king's barrels of gold and silver coins are looted by yet another skeleton, oblivious to the fact that a skeleton is warning him with an empty hourglass that his life is about to literally run out of time. The foolish and miserly monarch's last thoughts still compel him to reach out for his useless and vain wealth, seeming unaware of the need for repentance. In the centre, an awakening religious pilgrim has his throat cut by a robber-skeleton for his money purse. Above the murder, skeleton-fishermen catch people in a net.

In the bottom right-hand corner, a dinner has been broken up and the diners are putting up a futile resistance. They have drawn their swords in order to fight the skeletons dressed in winding-sheets. No less hopelessly, the court jester takes refuge beneath the dinner table. The backgammon board and the playing cards have been scattered, while a skeleton thinly disguised with a mask (possibly the face of a corpse) empties away the wine flasks. Of the menu of the interrupted meal, all that can be seen are a few pallid rolls of bread and an appetiser apparently consisting of a pared human skull. Above the table are two women. The one on the left struggles in vain while being embraced by a skeleton, in a hideous parody of after-dinner amorousness. The woman on the right is horrified with the realisation of mortality when a skeleton in a hooded robe mockingly seems to bring another dish, also consisting of human bones, to the table.[5]

In the bottom right-hand corner, a musician plays a lute while his lady sings. Both are oblivious to the fact that, behind both of them, the skeleton that plays along is grimly aware that the couple can not escape their inevitable doom. A cross sits in the centre of the painting. The painting shows aspects of everyday life in the mid-sixteenth century, when the risk of plague was very severe. Clothes are clearly depicted, as are pastimes such as playing cards and backgammon. It shows objects such as musical instruments, an early mechanical clock, scenes including a funeral service, and various methods of execution, including the breaking wheel, the gallows, burning at the stake, and the headsman about to behead a victim who has just taken wine and communion. In one scene, a human is the prey of a skeleton-hunter and his dogs.

In another scene at the left, skeletons drag victims down to be drowned in a pond. A man with a grinding stone around his neck is about to be thrown into the pond by the skeletons—an echoing of Matthew 18.6 and Luke 17.2. On the bridge just above at the right, a skeleton is about to strike a prostrate victim with a Falchion.

Bruegel combines two distinct visual traditions within the panel. These represent both the native tradition of Northern woodcuts of the Dance of Death, and the Italian conception of the Triumph of Death. Classic examples of his frescoes can now be seen in the Palazzo Sclafani in Palermo and in the Camposanto Monumentale at Pisa.[6]

Popular culture

Heavy metal band Black Sabbath released a compilation album titles Black Sabbath Greatest Hits in 1977 which used the painting as the front and back covers.[7]

In Underworld, a 1996 novel by Don Delillo, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover becomes utterly intrigued by the painting after and eventually obtains a print of it.

The painting plays a pivotal role in The Rich Man's House, 2019, the final novel by Australian writer Andrew McGahan, with its theme of inevitable mortality. The rich man of the title (called Richman) has acquired the painting from the Museo del Prado and it hangs in pride of place in his mountaintop house.[8]

Described in detail as being displayed as a mural under 'The Theatre des Vampires' in Anne Rice's Novel "Interview With The Vampire", p. 225. Copyright 1976 Anne O'Brien Rice. Published in U.S. by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House L.L.C., in 1976.

See also


  1. ^ a b Snyder, James (1985). Northern Renaissance Art: Painting, Sculpture, the Graphic Arts from 1350 to 1575. New York: Harry N. Abrams. p. 486. ISBN 0-8109-1081-0.
  2. ^ Pallucchini, Anna; Ragghianti, Carlo Ludovico; Collobi, Licia Ragghianti (1968). Prado, Madrid. Great Museums of the World. New York: Newsweek. p. 134.
  3. ^ According to the Italian Wikipedia the background of a tower "Particular of the triumph of the death of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (the Prado, Madrid), in which the profile of (Fortification of Reggio Calabria) and the Tower of Pentimele is recognized in the background, the Flemish painter was in Reggio in the sixteenth century and in this work refers to his notes of voyage in which It describes the attack of the Pirates of Dragut on the beach of the quarter of arches."
  4. ^ Woodward, Richard B. (February 14, 2009). "Death Takes No Holiday". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved December 22, 2011.
  5. ^ G. Gluck, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, London (1958), s.v. "Triumph of Death". See also Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen, Bruegel: The Complete Paintings. aka Pieter Bruegel the Elder: peasants, fools and demons, Taschen (2004).
  6. ^ P. Thon, "Bruegel's Triumph of Death Reconsidered", Renaissance Quarterly Vol. 21, No. 3, Autumn, 1968.
  7. ^ "Black Sabbath – Greatest Hits compilation album released in 1977 on the NEMS Record Label. The illustration on the album front cover is El Triunfo de la Muerte by Pieter Bruegel, Hard Rock, Heavy Metal Vinyl Album Gallery #vinylrecords". Retrieved 2023-03-08.
  8. ^ McGahan, Andrew (2019). The Rich Man's House. Sydney: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 978 1 76052 982 6.


 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Breughel, Pieter". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.

Further reading