Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

1555, Pieter Bruegel

There are no seething crowds here. The painting is 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. Most visitors to the Museum miss the detail which gives the poem its title.

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. The poem is an exquisitely written sermon, advocating what? Stoicism.

John Sutherland