"Brueghel's 'Triumph of Death' was in need of a complete clean-up"

The Museo del Prado is once again exhibiting 'The Triumph of Death' by Pieter Brueghel 'the Elder' after a major restoration process carried out in collaboration with Iberdrola España as a Patron of the Museo del Prado Restoration Program. We talked to the people on the ground in this restoration project.

A woman restores Brueghel's 'The Triumph of Death'.

María Antonia López de Asiaín restores Brueghel's 'The Triumph of Death'.

On 28 May 2018, the Museo del Prado presented The Triumph of Death by Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1525-1569), after undergoing one of the most significant restoration processes in the last year. This is one of approximately 40 paintings by Brueghel conserved worldwide. And together with The Wine of Saint Martin's Day, it is one of the two conserved in Spain. The piece is an oil panel painting measuring 117x162 centimetres representing a frequent medieval sight: the inevitable triumph of the Grim reaper over all worldly things, over the rich and the poor.

 More information on the painting 

María Antonia López de Asiaín and José de la Fuente, two art experts from the Prado who were involved in restoring this famous piece, explained how they tackled the delicate task of restoring the primordial essence of The Triumph of Death.

In technical terms, what are the most important features of The Triumph of Death?

María Antonia López de Asiaín: We are looking at a complex composition that combines the turmoil at the forefront with the depth of the scenery in the background. The scene is perfectly structured and features a strategic layout of volumes, clusters of characters, devastated empty landscapes and armies on the move. The pictorial technique is of supreme quality, using a very fine and extremely clear layer with beautifully precise details.

José de la Fuente: Regarding the support behind The Triumph of Death, it is unlike other Flemish supports. It is made of radial-cut Baltic oak. It comprises four panels joined at the edges using animal glue. It originally featured four inner dowels in each panel to better fit and level the boards.

When you received this important piece in your workshop, what state was it in?

M. A. L.: The image in the painting was dark and opaque, with a cloudy appearance. It was not in good condition. The piece was clearly in need of a complete clean-up to restore its former clarity, transparency and colour. It had a few chemical alterations around the panel joints, burns and so on, but the main cause of deterioration was that the support had been poorly restored years ago and this had damaged the painting.

J. F.: The support seemed to be in good condition until we did the first clean-up. We then realised there were cracks on the upper panel that could only have been caused by an accident during handling or a fall in the past. The cracks had been glued but badly levelled. It also became apparent that there were gaps between the panels that make up the board: they must have been taken apart and had their edges planed to get a better contact. In the operation part of the support and the paint was lost. That affected the figures that were painted diagonally, which logically didn't match up properly. Furthermore, the support was thinned to almost half and reinforced with a mesh - a technique known as relining - that proved to be too strong and stiff and prevented the wood from moving naturally.

Presentación de 'El triunfo de la Muerte' de Pieter Brueghel 'el Viejo' tras el proceso de restauración.

Presentation of 'The Triumph of Death' by Pieter Brueghel 'the Elder' after the restoration process. Video voice transcription (Spanish version) [PDF].

What steps were taken to restore the pictorial layer?

M. A. L.: The pictorial restoration was undertaken in two stages: The first stage focussed on securing the pictorial layer which had lifted especially around the cracks in the support, as well as removing surface varnish and repainted areas in the cracks to simplify the support restoration process that would subsequently be carried out by José de la Fuente. The second stage, after restoring the wooden support, was to finish cleaning the piece, revealing that some elements had been totally repainted. The painting's good quality and state of conservation meant that we were able to clean it up completely. The restoration work ended with careful plastering to smooth off the joints and assemble the panels perfectly.

What about restoring the support?

J. F.: First of all, we removed the lining that was holding back the board. We separated the top panel and reattached it after levelling out all the points of contact between the boards. The cracks on the panel were reopened, glued and levelled using various methods. We also evened out some areas at the joints between panels where there were raised areas. Once the joints and cracks had been strengthened, the board was still too fragile, so we chose to reinforce it with a second support: a cylinder glued to the original support with a nylon screw protruding from it. Now the painting can be handled without risk.

One of the main tasks carried out in present-day restoration involves removing repainted touches from previous conservation work. How is this delicate task done without damaging the original painting?

M. A. L.: This time, removing the repainted areas was a painstaking job because they were much harder than the delicate original. We applied chemical and physical media, aided by a scalpel seeing as the original paint would not have survived highly polar or aqueous solvents.

Every master painter uses their own technique. One of the best-known is Leonardo da Vinci's sfumato. When a piece of artwork is restored, is the same technique as the original applied?

M. A. L.: No, restoration has its own techniques and materials, which are always reversible and respectful of the original work. The aim is to use specific restoration techniques to achieve a similar aesthetic effect to that used by the artist.

This masterpiece by Brueghel is composed of a series of scenes that make it particularly interesting in the eyes of the viewer. Do restorers see the painting with the same interest?

M. A. L.: As a restorer I have traced every scene, the expression on each character's face, the way their bodies are entwined, taking in every last detail and brush stroke.


The aim is to use specific restoration techniques to achieve a similar aesthetic effect to that used by the artist.

What was the toughest challenge this job involved?

M. A. L.: It has actually been an easy piece to understand and work with. The greatest difficulty lay in respectfully rescuing a particularly thin and transparent pictorial layer.

J. F.: Without doubt, the biggest challenge was reopening the cracks and badly levelled joints. This is a tricky process and involves a very dangerous operation; you have to be very confident to undertake a task like this.

After restoration, it is plain to see that The Triumph of Death has recovered some blue tones and a powerful brightness and clarity. What other less obvious qualities have you given the piece with your work?

M. A. L.: Restoration not only recovers the original colours, it also brings out details that were lost in the panel joints that previous restorations had made up. Now the scene is easier to understand with the depth and arrangement of the groups of figures. We have restored the complexity of its composition and the depth of the scenery and the organised advance of the army's troops. The restoration has made the original pictorial technique more visible.

Has the macabre and satirical theme of Brueghel's painting made this project different to other jobs you have done?

M. A. L.: It is true that the theme is harsh, but the stunning beauty of the pictorial presentation softens that macabre feel and simply provides a natural representation of human events. It can almost be read like a 16th century comic strip. The work calls for us to reflect on death from a rational and natural perspective.

Can you see technological progress making your profession easier in the future?

M. A. L.: Of course. Over the past few years we have made progress thanks to better technical analysis and tools that help us achieve better results with less effort, such as microscopes and especially thanks to research into new gels and gentler solvents that are safer for the painting and the environment.

J. F.: Support restoration has evolved so significantly over the past few years that it would be unimaginable and recognisable for a restorer two or three decades ago. That evolution is due to the emergence of new materials and the role of technology in the systems we now use.

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