The Joy of Museums

Finding Beauty & Meaning in Museums

“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

Pieter Bruegel de Oude - De val van Icarus

“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by Pieter Brueghel, the Elder was long thought to be painted by Pieter Bruegel, the Elder, however, following recent technical examinations it is now regarded as an excellent early copy by an unknown artist of Bruegel’s lost original.

In Greek mythology, Icarus who succeeded in flying, with wings made by his father, using feathers and beeswax. Unfortunately, Icarus ignored his father’s warnings, and he flew too close to the sun, melting the wax, and he fell into the sea and drowned. His legs can be seen in the water at the bottom right.

The ploughman, shepherd and angler are mentioned in famous Ovid’s account of the legend, in which they are:

“astonished and think to see gods approaching them through the aether”

The painting contains these figures, but they seem to be oblivious to Icarus’s fate. This composition may be intended to illustrate the Flemish proverb:

“And the farmer continued to plough…”

Thus the painting is highlighting humanities indifference to other people’s suffering. As Auden’s poem suggests, this composition depicts humankind’s indifference to other people’s pain by underscoring the ordinary events which continue to occupy our lives. Additionally, the traditional moral story of the Icarus, which warns against excessive ambition, is reinforced by the more humble figures who appear content to fill useful roles in life.


Essential Facts:

Artist Essential Facts:


“The habit doesn’t make the monk. – El hábito no hace al monje. “
Spanish Proverb



Photo Credit: Pieter Brueghel the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons