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.
John Sutherland describes the painting as
a parable on human aspiration. Daedalus and his son, Icarus, were imprisoned on the island of Crete. Daedalus created wings to fly away. Icarus, ambitiously, flew too near the sun. The wax holding his wings together melted and he plunged into the sea and was drowned.
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.
Icarus the over-reacher: Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus
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’.
W H Auden’s portrayal of Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
- Full title:
- Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1555, Pieter Bruegel
- c. 1555
- Bruegel (the Elder) Pieter
- © Bridgeman Art Library/Royal Musuems of Fine Arts of Belgium
- Held by
- Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium
- Bridgeman Picture Library: XIR-3675
- Article by:
- John Sutherland
- Literature 1900–1950
John Sutherland describes the life of W H Auden and takes a look at three of his poems.
- Article by:
- Katherine Mullin
- Capturing and creating the modern, Literature 1900–1950, Exploring identity
James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man follows the development of a young Catholic Irishman from early boyhood to young adulthood. Here Dr Katherine Mullin examines Joyce’s portrayal of artistic expression, sexual transgression, and the repressive forces of culture and church.