the fall of icarus
The onlookers believe Daedalus and Icarus to be gods, and do not witness the only-too-human fall to earth. The message in Bruegel’s version is much more powerful. Yes, hybristic behaviour will lead to a downfall, but nobody will really care. Everyday life in all its simplicity will go on.
Bruegel’s inspiration was of course Ovid’s version of the myth of Icarus. There too, we encounter the ploughman, the shepherd and the fisherman. But there, they do notice the flying Daedalus and Icarus:
© Bridgeman Art Library / Royal Musuems of Fine Arts of Belgium
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 …
But in the bottom right hand corner of the canvas, a tragedy is unfolding, all but unheeded. Reckless Icarus, the legendary figure from Classical mythology, is in the final stages of one of the ancient world’s most famous aeronautical disasters. Together with his father Daedalus, the young man had made himself a pair of wings, glued together with wax. Daedalus had warned his son not to fly too close to the sun in case its heat were to melt the structure, but the impetuous boy soared too high anyway and, in the painting, has just tumbled down into the waves, to his death.
It shows a superficially bucolic scene: ships are taking sail, a shepherd is tending to his flock, distant cities look prosperous and ordered.
The success of this painting dates back a very long way and even had a poem written in respect of it by William Carlos Williams. W. H. Auden’s poem MusГ©e des Beaux-Arts also comments on the work as well and that piece of literature was named after the museum in Belgium where it can now be seen on display, and has been for many years. This remains one of the most impressive art museums across the country and is well worth a visit, if only to see the original Fall of Icarus in person.
This website covers the Fall of Icarus in detail and includes images of the painting as well as good information on the life of the painter. Pieter Bruegel the Elder was responsible for the painting discussed but his son, the younger, also had an impressive career too and both are certainly worth studying.
Dr. Paul Kalanithi, suffering from incurable and ultimately terminal metastatic lung cancer just as he is beginning a promising career as a neurosurgeon, writes that one’s own suffering can make a person “callous to the obvious suffering of another.” 13 We can develop what I have called compassion failure, an indifference that occurs in the context of our own preoccupations and vulnerabilities.
This theme of compassion failure pervades the short work by physician Anton Chekhov,“A Boring Story: From an Old Man’s Notes 14 : Nikolai Stepanovich, a medical professor emeritus, describes himself as “a highly distinguished man of great gifts and unquestionable usefulness.” At age 62, though, this professor is depressed and clearly suffering from his own preoccupations and vulnerabilities. He tells us that he has tic douloureux, false teeth, a bald head, poor memory with a decline in his mental agility, and incapacitating insomnia. With the “fervor of the hypochondriac,” the professor peruses therapeutic texts and self-medicates with a different medication daily. 14 Nothing holds his interest or gives him pleasure, including the sight of his wife, now “this old, very stout, ungainly woman with a dull expression” 14 whom he had once “passionately loved.” 14 His lectures used to give him more enjoyment than anything else but now make him feel tortured and ashamed. He no longer has any patience or compassion for his students. To one young man who has invested five years in medical study but has continually failed the professor’s exams, he cruelly suggests that he abandon his training. To another student, who seeks mentoring advice from him, he is caustic and dismissive. He describes himself as indifferent, which he defines as a “paralysis of the soul, a premature death.” 14