Icarus is a tragic character from Greek mythology who fell from the sky. He was lost in the Labyrinth with his father, a craftsman, but managed to escape with wings made of feathers glued together with wax. However, he started flying higher and higher against his father’s warning that flying too close to the sun would melt the wax and eventually fell into the sea. This tragic yet didactic story has inspired many painters throughout the history.
Among them was 16th-century Dutch painter Pieter Bruegel who was brilliant at illustrating messages found in the the Bible, myths and proverbs satirically. However, you cannot find Icarus in his painting where a farmer is plowing, a shepherd taking care of his sheep and a man fishing in idyllic surroundings. Above the angler is a ship cruising in the water. Icarus is right between the angler and the ship. He fell from the sky, so only his legs can be seen. He is so small that you cannot spot him unless you take a close look.
The highlight of this painting is actually the shepherd. While he is looking up, his sheep are scattering and jumping into the sea. Through the shepherd who looks as careless as Icarus, the painter is telling us that someone else’s tragedy can become mine. The message of this 450-year-old painting still holds true today when people are numb to other people’s pain or, even worse, turn it into gossips.