The Fall Of Icarus


In the best known version of the myth…Daedalus warns his son not to fly too high, since the sun’s warmth will melt the wax; but the heedless son, giddy with excitement, disobeys his father, soars too high, loses his wings and crashes into the sea. With poignant irony, Brueghel’s canvas illustrates the split second in time just after Icarus has fallen: the painting is almost entirely taken up by the shore and the sea and, especially, by three peasants who go about their business, plowing, herding, and fishing, utterly unaware of the catastrophe – the only sign of which is a tiny detail off in the corner, which turns out to be poor Icarus’ legs waggling pathetically just above the waterline. In Brueghel’s hands, Ovid’s tale of a son’s wilful rejection of his father’s wisdom becomes a story about the need for a kind of humility – for, you might say, perspective; an admonition about what we miss when we are intent on our own narratives, about the dangers of mistaking the foreground for the whole picture.

Daniel Mendelsohn An Odyssey p53

Pieter Brueghel the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

8 thoughts on “The Fall Of Icarus

  1. I’m sure you know the Auden poem beginning ‘About suffering they were never wrong/
    The old Masters’. It’s worth quoting in full, really, alongside this painting which was, in part, its inspiration. A wonderful poem in may view, and a wonderful painting too.

    1. A favourite of mine. “the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
      Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
      Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”

    1. The Shield of Achilles is another great one, if not quite as memorable:

      She looked over his shoulder
      For vines and olive trees,
      Marble well-governed cities
      And ships upon untamed seas,
      But there on the shining metal
      His hands had put instead
      An artificial wilderness
      And a sky like lead.

  2. It’s akin to a father giving his underage son the keys to the car and telling him not to get into trouble. It’s a beautiful painting.

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