Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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Realm of Hungry Ghosts (from The Six Realms of Rebirth)
Realm of Hungry Ghosts (from The Six Realms of Rebirth)
Triumph of Death
Triumph of Death

What can art about death tell us about life?

Death is, in some ways, the greatest mystery of life. Almost every culture formulates its own ideas, however amorphous, as to what happens to the individual after death. Often, those ideas are bound up with cultural expectations and behavioral ideals to which the living person is subject. In other words, one’s conduct in life will determine the nature of his or her experiences in death. Both the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts scroll and the Triumph of Death were very much intended as images that would prompt their viewers to consider their values in this world and contemplate what might follow.

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Questions to Consider

  • Both of these works offers the viewer a bleak vision. Bruegel’s image shows all of humanity succumbing to death with no sign of salvation in sight. The Japanese scroll depicts one of the six realms of Buddhist cosmology, one populated by hungry ghosts, who wander about unable to satisfy their desires. Set in the context of their respective belief systems, what do you think viewers were supposed to take away from each work?
  • These works were surely meant to be frightening to their contemporary audiences. Do you find that they instill fear in you today? If not, why not? If so, what produces that sense of fear?
  • Who do you think might have commissioned works such as these and why? Are these kinds of works—large-scale reminders of death and what comes after—created in your own culture today? What does your answer suggest about the similarities or differences between your culture and the ones that produced these two paintings?

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