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Art Through Time: A Global View

Death Compare: What Can Art About Death Tell Us About Life?

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

Realm of Hungry Ghosts (from The Six Realms of Rebirth)
Artist / Origin: School of/Style of Hirotaka, Japan
Region: East Asia
Date: Edo period, 19th century copy of 13th century original
Period: 1800 CE – 1900 CE
Material: Ink and color on paper
Medium: Painting
Dimensions: H: 60 in. (152.6 cm.), 26 3/8 in. (67 cm.)
Location: The British Museum, London, UK
Credit: © The Trustees of the British Museum/Art Resource, NY

Triumph of Death

Triumph of Death
Artist / Origin: Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Netherlandish, c. 1525–1569)
Region: Europe
Date: ca. 1562
Period: 1400 CE – 1800 CE
Material\: Oil on panel
Medium: Painting
Dimensions: H: 46 in. (117 cm.), W: 63.8 in. (162 cm.)
Location: Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain
Credit: Courtesy of Art Resource/Photo by Erich Lessing

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.

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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Art Through Time: A Global View


Produced by THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG. 2009.
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