Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c. 1555) is an oil painting attributed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It shows the Greek mythological figure, Icarus, plunging into the sea in the lower right-hand corner.
In literature, Icarus is often used as a metaphor for human pride and ambition. For example, in the Prologue of Doctor Faustus (c. 1588), Christopher Marlowe uses the myth to foreshadow the inevitable downfall of Faustus, who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for superhuman powers: ‘His waxen wings did mount above his reach, / And melting, heavens conspired his overthrow’.
Thus the painting is highlighting humanity’s indifference to other people’s suffering. As Auden’s poem suggests, this composition depicts humankind’s indifference to other people’s pain by underscoring the ordinary events which continue to occupy our lives. Additionally, the traditional moral story of the Icarus, which warns against excessive ambition, is reinforced by the more humble figures who seem content to fill useful roles in life.
The painting contains these figures, but they seem to be oblivious to Icarus’s fate. This composition may be intended to illustrate the Flemish proverb:
“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” painted around 1555.
About suffering, they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…
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.
Oil on canvas – MusГ©es Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, Belgium
A vast, partially constructed tower dominates Bruegel’s extraordinary 1563 work The Tower of Babel. Surrounding the structure is a landscape dotted with tiny figures, some of whom march in procession around its curving stories, while others toil at the scaffolds along its sides. To the right, ships unload building materials; in every respect of detail, the painting is minutely, naturalistically accurate.