painting of icarus
If you look carefully, you can see his legs as he drowns, in the far distance of the painting. They are dwarfed by the horse’s rump …
Earth abides: the ploughman ploughs. Trading vessels go about their commercial business. Life goes on. The death of an unlucky aviator is of no more importance than the fall of a sparrow. Mankind deludes itself if it thinks otherwise.
Bruegel was not an overtly political artist. But this work, like The Conversion of Paul, indicates his ability to offer oblique commentaries on contemporary society. The gallows would have been a recognizable symbol of oppression during the Spanish campaign in the Low Countries, with hanging a fate awaiting many religious agitators, who were often exposed by the gossip or betrayal of friends. The little bird at the center of the piece thus takes on a grim allegorical relevance via a common Netherlandish expression: “to gossip like a magpie”. At the same time, the piece strikes a note of defiance, the male figure defecating in the bushes in the immediate foreground suggesting the artist’s attitude towards the Spanish occupation, and calling to mind another common expression of the Low Countries, “to shit at the gallows”, meaning to defy authority and death.
The battle between Carnival and Lent stood partly for a contemporary struggle unfolding in Bruegel’s home country. In 1556 the Low Countries, in possession of the vastly powerful Habpburg dynasty, passed to King Philip II of Spain, who sought to bring it under a more direct and stricter form of Catholic rule. At the same time, the Netherlandish countries were close to the heart of the unfolding Reformation movement, which viewed Catholic festivities such as Lent with profound suspicion. The carnivalesque energy of the left-hand side of the painting stands not so much for the emergent spirit of Protestantism – which tended to be more repressive of the traditional festive calendar than Catholicism – but for the obdurate pagan customs and rebellious character of an oppressed culture.
There was also a separate myth concerning Phaethon, which has sometimes become confused with that of Daedalus and Icarus; because the two legends have a common theme of people becoming overambitious and coming to grief as a consequence, this confusion may of course be intentional.
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Carlo Saraceni: Icarus Painting
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
The Fall of Icarus, Pieter Bruegel (c. 1525-69) inspired several poems, two of which are included below, which spoke to the painting’s depiction of human ambition as well as humankind’s indifference to suffering.