Satire in the Triumph of Death: Pieter Bruegel and Humanism

Susan Gisselberg

Abstract


In her 2010 comprehensive study, Bruegel and the Creative Process, 1559 – 1563, Margaret Sullivan illustrates how the turbulent religious and political disorder of the 16th century Netherlands influenced a concentrated production of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s most original works, including his Prado, Triumph of Death. Sullivan uses a wide array of classical and humanist literature as well as popular 16th century folklore to show how the Triumph of Death “integrates the Christian and the classical in a profoundly original work of art”1. She uses these classical and contemporary references to support her argument that his Triumph of Death represents one of the most popular satirical subjects in the humanist philosophy, death as a perspective on life. Sullivan shows how the Triumph of Death satirized both the actions of the Reformist Movement as well as those of the Church to present a humanist critique of both Christian positions through a stoic view of the madness and folly of his time. In a recent review of her book, Todd Richardson argues that Sullivan’s reliance on classical literary sources had little visual evidence in the work itself, and that her connections with antiquity lie solely in the motif of death2. This paper will support Sullivan’s claim that through his humanist connections, and use of classical and Christian motifs, Bruegel’s Triumph shares in the visual and literary traditions of Northern Renaissance humanism that revived the classical tradition of satire and folly of man. In analyzing this and other works by Bruegel in parallel with literary origins and contemporary influence, the classical genre of satire can be seen as the Triumph’s central motif and not death alone. It will show the Triumph of Death as a social and political satire on the Netherlands because it personifies the chaos and madness Bruegel was witness to. By illustrating the fall of man in this apocalypse, Bruegel presents the consequences of continued folly and madness through visual traditions associated with popular culture and the Northern Renaissance humanists.

Keywords


Pieter Bruegel, Satire, Northern Renaissance; Humanism; Netherlands

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