“Flying Too Close to the Sun”

This post will focus on content, and how a single story can be transformed by different artistic visions, making us think twice about its ultimate meaning. Without further ado…

Ambition can fuel our greatest achievements, but it can also lead to our untimely demise. The tragedy of hubris is best captured by the Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus, commonly known as the Fall of Icarus. Daedalus, a brilliant Athenian craftsman, designed a giant Labyrynth for King Minos of Crete to trap the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull monster. However, after various intrigues, Minos imprisoned Daedalus and his son Icarus in the labyrinth. In order to escape, Daedalus put together giant wings of bird feathers held together by wax so that they could fly away from Crete over the sea. Before departing, he warned his son not to fly too low, for the sea could dampen the wings and make the heavy, or too high, for the sun could melt the wax on the wings. But as they set off into the sky, Icarus became giddy with the magical lightness of flight, and in his excitement to explore the skies he flew too close to the sun. The wax began to melt and his feathers fell one by one, until he could no longer hold himself aloft. Helpless, Icarus fell into the sea and drowned. His father searched for him desperately, but in the end he had to continue the journey alone, feeling cursed by his own inventions.

Merry-Joseph Blondel, The Fall of Icarus, 1819 © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

This timeless tale of the dangers of unrestrained ambition has been represented countless times over the centuries. Typical paintings like French artist Merry-Joseph Blondel‘s version (shown above) usually feature the dramatic moment of Icarus’ fall in the foreground, emphasizing the tragedy and violence of his death. But Pieter Bruegel, a Renaissance painter from Northern Europe, had a different idea in mind when he designed his Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1560s).

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Fall of Icarus, 1560s

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Fall of Icarus, 1560s

The protagonist of this beautiful painting is a simple farmer busy tilling his fields, his face turned away from the viewer and his back hunched over his careful work, while Icarus is nowhere in sight. Ships set sail over calm seas, sheep graze peacefully on the hillside, and a quiet, golden sun peeks over the horizon. However, hidden amidst the idyllic landscape beneath the largest of the ships, two legs flail and splash as Icarus disappears from sight into the shadowy waters of the harbor. No one hears his cries, no one sees him fall, no one rushes to save the ill-fated Icarus; not even his father appears in the darkened skies to lament his death. Bruegel based this painting on an old Flemish proverb, “And the farmer continued to plough…,”describing human indifference to the suffering of others. The rigid, repetitive insistence of the farmer and his plough reflects the endless continuity of time, which stops for no one but flows incessantly forward for everyone, regardless of the triumphs and failures, blessings and tragedies that shape each life. This painting has inspired a variety of poems, some of which comment on the merciless progression of time or the hubris of man’s efforts, but I am reminded of the famous lyrics by Rush in their song “Bravado:” “If we burn our wings Flying too close to the sun If the moment of glory Is over before it’s begun If the dream is won Though everything is lost We will pay the price But we will not count the cost” Is it worth losing everything for a single moment of glorious victory? Perhaps…

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One thought on ““Flying Too Close to the Sun”

  1. Pingback: Cracking the Code: A Series | The Art of Looking

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