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Art and Images in Psychiatry
July 2011

Bruegel's Landscape With Fall of Icarus

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2011;68(7):653. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.69

[Daedalus] kissed his son, which he was destined never again to do, and rising on his wings, he flew on ahead, fearing for his companion . . . the boy began to rejoice in his bold flight and, deserting his leader . . . directed his course to greater height.—Ovid's Metamorphoses Book VIII1(lines 211-213,223-225)

In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away/Quite leisurely from the disaster . . . / Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky.—W. H. Auden's poem “Musée Des Beaux Arts”2(p87)

Pieter Bruegel's (c 1525-1569) satirical drawings of the stories of Daedalus, Icarus, and Perdix are unique in their interpretation of Ovid's Metamorphoses. In Book VIII, Ovid tells of Minos, king of Crete. When Minos refused to surrender the beautiful white Cretan bull for sacrifice, Poseidon demanded that as his punishment, his wife, Pasiphaë, would fall in love and adulterously mate with the bull. A son was born, the legendary Minotaur, with the head of a bull and body of a man. Shamed Minos demanded that Daedalus, the renowned architect, construct a labyrinth to hide the Minotaur. Later Minos blamed Daedalus for complicity both in facilitating Pasiphaë's mating with the bull and also in aiding his daughter, Ariadne, who plotted with Theseus to kill the Minotaur. Thus, Minos held Daedalus captive on Crete. Daedalus, trapped by land, sought to escape by sky with his son. He constructed wings for himself and Icarus from feathers using thread and wax to bind them. As Daedalus worked, Icarus played idly by with the feather down and playfully put his thumbprints in the soft wax.1(lines 198-200)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c 1525-1569), Flemish. Landscape With the Fall of Icarus, c 1555. Oil on canvas, 73.5 cm × 112 cm. Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, Belgium/Giraudon/The Bridgeman Art Library.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c 1525-1569), Flemish. Landscape With the Fall of Icarus, c 1555. Oil on canvas, 73.5 cm × 112 cm. Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, Belgium/Giraudon/The Bridgeman Art Library.

Concerned about Icarus' readiness for flight, Daedalus hovered over him, tearful and trembling, but ultimately taught him the fatal art of flight. As they departed Crete, Daedalus warned Icarus to keep a middle course, neither too close to the moisture from the sea nor too close to the sun. At first all went well. Ovid describes a fisherman angling for fish with a flexible rod, a shepherd leaning on his crook, and a ploughman on his plough all looking up in wonder, stupefied, and believing them to be gods in flight. Then overly exuberant, Icarus flew too close to the sun; the wing wax melted and he lost his wings. Arms flailing, he called out to his father as he hurtled downward into the sea. Searching for him, Daedalus saw feathers floating on the sea, found his son, and buried him in a tomb, naming the coastland after him.

Traditionally, in keeping with Ovid's text, artists show the astonishment of a fisherman, a shepherd, and a ploughman as they watch father and son in flight. Bruegel's painting (cover) deviates entirely from Ovid's text and shows them all indifferent to Icarus' fall.3,4 A nearby ship seemingly oblivious to Icarus sails on. Icarus, his legs flailing in the water, is shown near an inattentive fisherman at the far right. Daedalus is not shown; the evening sun, not the midday sun, is shown over the horizon. The scene is an idyllic landscape with distant mountains, a quiet blue-green sea, a farmer with a donkey, a shepherd with his flock, and a sailing ship.3 Icarus' hubris, his disobedience of his father (epigraph) in flying too high, is a cautionary tale about obedience and restraint, the sin of presumption. It was viewed this way in Bruegel's time and so is also to this day.

In the 1930s, poet Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-1973) viewed Bruegel's Icarus at the Musée Des Beaux Arts in Antwerp, Belgium; his poem (epigraph) about how the painting reflects attitudes to human suffering is one of his best known. Poet William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) echoed Auden's theme5 in his poem about Bruegel's Icarus in its conclusion: “a splash quite unnoticed/it was Icarus drowning.”4(p6) Yet the splash is noticed! A pigeon-like bird, a partridge (Greek Perdix), is perched on a low branch and looks from a tree at Icarus' flailing white legs. Ironically Ovid, immediately after his sympathetic rendition of Daedalus' grief, alerts the reader to another story less benign, that of Daedalus' earlier attempted murder of his nephew, Perdix. Ovid writes that while Daedalus was placing Icarus in his tomb, a “chattering partridge clapped her wings uttering a joyous note.”1(lines 236-240) The strange bird provides a lasting reproach for Daedalus. Years before, when Daedalus' sister sent her clever 12-year-old son, Perdix, to him for instruction, Daedalus, envious of the boy's talents, pushed him headlong from the sacred citadel of Minerva on the Acropolis. Perdix's death was averted when Minerva changed him into a bird and clothed him in feathers in mid air as he fell.

Thus, Ovid teaches us that it was Daedalus' hubris in transgressing the laws of nature in seeking to fly like a god that is the ultimate source for blame. Icarus, who lacked judgment for flight, may have been deceived and thus was also Daedalus' victim: his death may be the retribution for Daedalus' attempted murder of Perdix. In Bruegel's art, Icarus' fall does not go unnoticed by the partridge when Ovid illustrates the entire tale.

Bruegel, in his time, was well known for his humorous touch.6 Thus, this painting's message for his times may not be as serious as poets and moralists now claim. Making fun of ancient myths and unrealistic stories was a regular source of mirth in Renaissance humanist satire. Icarus was a favorite target when mocking self-satisfied people whose good fortune makes them careless, for like Icarus, “their wax quickly melts, their wings moult, and they bring ridicule upon themselves by falling head first into deep waters.”7(p211) Icarus' flailing legs in the water after his seemingly overblown attempt to astonish people on the ground with his aerial acrobatics could raise a 16th-century laugh!

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