Carlo Saraceni (1579 – 1620), "Fall of Icarus (c.1606), Museo di Capodimonte, Naples.


Hubris (ὕβρις): Pride Goeth Before The Fall…

This is a story of ambition, pride and downfall. It’s about Icarus (Ἴκαρος) and his father Daedalus (Δαίδαλος) and how they escaped imprisonment, flying out of the infamous Labyrinth on the isle of Crete. But with a tragic ending. Icarus flies too high and too close to sun; he loses his wings, falls out of the sky, plunges into the water, and drowns in what’s now called the Icarian Sea. A story from Greek mythology and written down in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Anthony van Dyck (1599 – 1641), “Self-Portrait as Icarus with Daedalus” (1618), 112x93cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Daedalus is concentrating on adjusting the ribbons with the wings over his son’s shoulders, and may be explaining to him the importance of flying at the right altitude. Icarus though, is already making his own plan. He looks with pride and will follow his own path. Its a self-portrait by Van Dyck, when he was 19 years old. About to start his own career and become a famous painter on his own merits. That’s what he is expressing in this painting.

According to the classical Greek legend, Daedalus was a master architect most famously responsible for building the Labyrinth on the island on Crete, as prison for the Minotaur monster, a half-man, half-bull. Because of his knowledge of the Labyrinth, King Minos of Crete shut Daedalus and his son Icarus, up in his own created Labyrinth, to simply keep the mysteries of the labyrinth a secret. Daedalus decided that for him and his son the only way to escape was up through the air.

Laurent Pécheux (1729 – 1821), “Daedalus and Icarus in the Labyrinth”, 97x73cm, current whereabouts unknown, latest at Sothebys January 19, 2005.
Daedalus tells his son the that the only way out of the Labyrinth is through the air. In the front left corner the instruments of Daedalus as architect, on the right the stove where the beeswax was melted to glue the feathers together.

Daedalus constructed for himself and Icarus sets of wings made from feathers held together by beeswax. He then cautioned his son to fly a middle course: neither so low that the sea would wet the feathers and make them heavy, nor so high that the heat of the sun would damage them.

School of Joseph-Marie Vien (1716 – 1809), “Daedalus in the Labyrinth, attaching the wings to his son Icarus” (c.1750), 195x130cm, Louvre, Paris.
Daedalus is attaching the wings to the shoulders of Icarus and gives his son the vital pre-flight briefing. Seems Icarus has other thoughts, he is pointing out to where he wants to go. Is that towards the sun?

“Daedalus said: Let me warn you, Icarus, to take the middle way between earth and heaven, if you fly too low the moisture from the sea weighs down your wings, or if you go too high, the sun scorches them. Travel between the extremes. Take me as your guide and follow the course I show you!” (From Ovid’s Metamorphoses book VIII. Verse 183-235)

Jacob Peeter Gowy (1615 – 1661) after Peter Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640), “The Fall of Icarus” (1637), 195x180cm, Prado, Madrid.
Icarus, his wings in tatters, plunges past Daedalus into the sea. Icarus’ mouth and eyes are wide open in shock and fear, and his body tumbles as it falls. Daedalus is still flying, his wings intact and fully functional; he looks alarmed towards the falling body of his son. They are high above a bay containing people and a fortified town at the edge of the sea.

Overcome by a feeling of pride and confidence, Icarus disobeyed his father and soared high into the sky trying to quench his thirst. But he came too close to the sun. And without warning, the heat from the sun melted the wax holding his feathers together. One by one, Icarus’s feathers fell like snowflakes. Icarus kept flapping his “wings”, but he had no feathers left and was only flapping his bare arms. Then he fell into the sea and drowned.

Joos de Momper (1564 – 1635), “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”, 154173cm, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm. Joos de Momper is closely following the narratives from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. These include an angler catching a fish with a rod and line, a shepherd leaning on a crook, a ploughman resting on the handles of his plough. According to Ovid, they are amazed with this sight of Daedalus and Icarus and believed to be gods. Up at the top left, Daedalus is seen to be flying well, but Icarus is in an inverted position as he tumbles down.

“Icarus, Icarus where are you? Which way should I be looking, to see you?”, screamed Daedalus. Finally, Daedalus found the body of his son floating amidst feathers. Cursing his inventions, he took the body to the nearest island and buried it there. The island where Icarus was buried is named Icaria.

Paul Ambroise Slodtz (1702 – 1758), Fall of Icarus” (1743), Marble, 38x64x55cm, Louvre, Paris.
A beautiful intimate marble from the Louvre. Icarus fell into the sea, a wave comes from the right, his wings detached and the feathers in disarray. As if he washed ashore on the island of Icaria, in the middle of the Icarian Sea. The island where his father Daedalus will burry him.

What do we learn from this story? Icarus is instructed to fly between the extremes; not too high but also not too low. This is a warning to avoid being too ambitious while also not becoming completely unambitious. One need to find a golden ratio. In the story are significant changes of fortune. When Daedalus and Icarus start their flight, it marks a change from prison to freedom, from bad to good fortune but then comes the moment that Icarus gets overconfident and flies too high, he wants to reach the sun! With as result that his wings disintegrate, and his fortune changes from good to bad. Pride goes before the fall! The story of Icarus is the perfect example of hubris!

Herbert Draper (1863-1920), “The Lament for Icarus” (1898). Draper’s painting a more romantic view, in which three nymphs have recovered the (apparently dry) body of Icarus, and he is laid out on a rock, while they lament his fate, to the accompaniment of a lyre. Perhaps influenced by contemporary thoughts about human flight and aerospace travel, Draper gives Icarus huge wings, and they are shown intact, rather than disintegrated from their exposure to the sun’s heat.