The Triumph of Death was a widespread image starting from the late Middle Ages and has its origins in Franco-Germanic territory. Often connected to the Last Judgment theme, it carries a taste for the macabre that will characterize the years to follow, up until the Black Plague of 1348.
A recurring image
The work’s location is the Abatellis Museum, in Palermo, Sicily. The painting belongs to a historical period that critics defined as International Gothic or court style. The majority of the fresco represents the same noble court. Death, embodied by a skeleton, rides astride an emaciated horse that tramples the lifeless bodies beneath it.
The scene’s grim protagonist has just released an arrow at a young man (in the bottom right). Pierced through the neck, he falls to his knees. The arrow is particularly symbolic in this context. Since the classical age, artists have used it to represent the unleashing of a plague on the part of divinity. For this reason, San Sebastiano, who appears in this iconography, having survived the executioners’ arrows, became one of the protecting saints against epidemics.
The didactic purpose
The Triumph of Death has a clear internal division, so much so as to be didactic. On the left, the author depicted a group of impoverished men and women, praying to Death to end their suffering. In the center, foreground lies the bodies of monks, nobles, and other members of the ecclesiastical orders. This shows Death does not make class distinctions.
Lastly, on the right, only the aristocrats near the center are upset by the macabre spectacle. Those towards the edges, on the opposite, appear either ignorant or serene, dedicated to their music and hunting. And yet Death is coming for them too.