Symbols In Art: Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the sun
An ‘ornithopter’ is man’s attempt to fly like a bird. It is a device that seeks to take flight by the action of flapping wings, to conquer the effects of gravity on the model of nature. Many attempts have ended in failure; some have ended more tragically.
Otto Lilienthal, a German aviation pioneer, became famous in his native country for his successful ornithopter flights, but died in a glider accident 1896. In 2006, Yves Rousseau, a French inventor, succeeded in flying a distance of 64 meters in his muscle-powered flying machine with flapping wings. On his next attempt, a freak gust of wind caused the device to crash, leaving Rousseau gravely injured and rendered paraplegic. Others still, like inventor George R. White, went on improving their machines over decades, but never quite soared like the “White Eagle” after which his machine was named.
The most famous tale of mankind’s aspiration to reach for the skies is as old as Greek myth. The version we are most familiar with is that told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, of Icarus and his father Daedalus.
Daedalus was a renowned craftsman and inventor who worked for King Minos on the island of Crete. It was Daedalus who devised the maze known as the Labyrinth in which the Minotaur — a creature with the body of a man and the head and horns of a bull — was kept. It was also Daedalus who gave the King’s daughter, Ariadne, a ball of thread to help her lover Theseus escape from the Labyrinth after killing the Minotaur.
Daedalus and his son Icarus were imprisoned by Minos for helping Theseus. Desperate to escape, Daedalus began to fashion a pair of wings from feathers and quills. He also made a pair for Icarus so they could abscond together. When he was fastening the wings to his son, he warned him not to fly to high in the sky nor to near the sea. “My son, I caution you to keep the middle way, for if your pinions dip too low the waters may impede your flight; and if they soar too high the sun may scorch them.”
The father and son flew from their imprisonment, but Icarus “bold in vanity” began to soar on his wings and flew too close to the sun. The heat began to melt the wax that held his wings together and he plunged headlong into the sea.
The story of Icarus and his father Daedalus has been represented many times in literature and art. Two alternative themes emerge, transforming the tragic tale into one of moral allegory. The first is as a symbol of man’s inventiveness and aspiration. The second is the one favoured by Renaissance moralists, of Icarus’s fall from the sky as an allegory of pride, youth and the dangers of going to extremes.
Icarus and Daedalus were often represented in antique art, on Greek vases and Pompeian wall paintings. A Greek terracotta oil flask (pictured above) shows what is estimated to be Icarus in his descent, with a representation of a bird flying over him, perhaps to show him how it’s really done.
The passage from Ovid that describes Icarus and Daedalus’s flight appears in Book 8, lines 183–235, from which the following excerpt of Icarus’s fall is taken:
“Proud of his success,
the foolish Icarus forsook his guide,
and, bold in vanity, began to soar,
rising upon his wings to touch the skies;
but as he neared the scorching sun, its heat
softened the fragrant wax that held his plumes;
and heat increasing melted the soft wax —
he waved his naked arms instead of wings,
with no more feathers to sustain his flight.
And as he called upon his father’s name
his voice was smothered in the dark blue sea,
now called Icarian from the dead boy’s name.”
(Translation by Brookes More, 1922)
A typical representation in art shows the father and sun airborne over the Aegean sea, with islands in the background from which they are escaping from or to, sometimes with a tower representing their imprisonment. Often the sun is shining or sometimes the sun-god Helios is shown riding his chariot across the sky. The foolhardy Icarus is usually shown tumbling towards the sea whilst his father looks on helplessly.
Sometimes, artists have chosen to depict Icarus’s fall as part of a wider landscape in which country people go about their daily work, such as in Pieter Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. In this work, Icarus is but a tiny detail in the bottom-right corner, of two legs disappearing into the water. Otherwise, the farmer continues to plow his field, the shepherd attends his flock and trading vessels go about their commercial business. In other words, the folly of ambition is a trivial event compared to the livelihoods of society.
The poet W. H. Auden reached a similar conclusion when he wrote of the painting in his poem Musee des Beaux Arts, from 1938. Here’s an excerpt:
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and 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.
A similar feel is found in another Dutchman’s rendition of the story, in Marten Ryckaert Landscape with a farmer plowing and the fall of Icarus, painted a decade or two after Bruegel.
In this work, both father and son are shown, with Icarus beginning to fall under the intense rays of the sun. The landscape is replete with castles and boats; in the foreground, a farmer points up at the flying pair, perhaps in consternation or perhaps in merry bewilderment. Again, we are supposed to read the adventure of Icarus and Daedalus as trivialities compared to the wider goings-on of the world.
In later versions, artists went on to dwell on the dreamlike quality of the story, celebrating both the idealistic and tragic aspects. Herbert James Draper’s version, for instance, shows the moment after Icarus’s fall with the dead youth surrounded by lamenting nymphs. Painted in a gold-bronze palette to suggest the setting sun on distant cliffs, the image glows with a nostalgic and glamorous air.
In Draper’s version, Icarus’s wings are impossibly large; the nymphs attention add a sensual element. The image is romantic and dreamlike, following the principle in symbolism that art should represent truths through indirect metaphor. According to Dr. Justine Hopkins the painting identifies Icarus “with the other heroes of the Pre-Raphaelites and symbolists, who, like James Dean half a century later, manage to live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse.”
Icarus has continued to be a subject of emotive and allegoric importance to artists and writers through the 20th century and into the 21st. Perhaps it is the spirit of Icarus that we continue to admire, the impossibly romantic notion of a youth soaring towards the sun that must, by the logic of poetry, end in tragedy. It is a fantasy that kindles the imagination still. Or as the Russian artist and illustrator Sergey Solomko put it simply, the “Dream of Icarus”.