Peasant Imagery and Bruegel's "Fall of Icarus" robert baldwin




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Peasant Imagery and Bruegel's “Fall of Icarus”
ROBERT BALDWIN
[published Konsthistorisk Tidskrift, LV, 3, 1986, 101-114]

Recent scholarship has explored a tradition of overwhelmingly negative peasant imagery from the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries.1 Developed in medieval courtly circles and taken up in the Renaissance by the middle class, the peasant provided a negative definition of what was civilized and noble.2 Set against this background, Pieter Bruegel's peasant scenes display a curious ambiguity. On the one hand, his prints and paintings of peasant festivals express a bourgeois scorn for how “the peasants delight in such feasts, To dance, caper, and get bestially drunk”.3 Such scorn is clear on the face of the middle-class man who watches, with the jester and the real viewer, the drunken boors in the Vienna Peasant Dance. On the other hand, Bruegel's paintings of the Seasons and his Fall of Icarus celebrate peasant life for an industrious harmony with nature. This view of peasants is particularly clear in the Icarus where the sweeping panorama is anchored around the heroic figure of the plowman (Fig. 1).4 To date, no scholar has explored the Good Plowman theme and its importance in sixteenth-century Northern art.5 To do so will allow a more balanced understanding of Bruegel's peasants and a richer sens of the Icarus as a mythological image phrased in vernacular terms. As such, it parallels Northern humanists who called for translations of classical texts and the Bible. On a more social level, it implies a bourgeois distance from farmers by celebrating the peasant who stays in his place. In this sense, the painting may, on one level, dovetail with Bruegel's more satirical images of peasants.

The husbandman was a familiar paragon of industry, moderation, and moral integrity, both in classical and early Christian writings. Virgils' Georgics, Horace's second Epode, Columella's On Agriculture and Pliny's Natural History-all well known to the Renaissance-used agricultural labor as the central metaphor in nostalgically describing a golden age in early republican Rome.6 Virgil's account offers intriguing parallels to Bruegel with its extensive description of the peaceful, moderate plowman ignorant of the bellicose, avaricious ambitions of city dwellers seeking “kingdoms doomed to fall”.7 Horace, Columella, and Pliny also contrasted a past, moral country life to the present immorality of cities. In the golden age, even urban life was guided by the virtues of rural existence. Thus Pliny wrote of Republican Rome. “The agricultural class produces the bravest men, the most gallant soldiers, and the citizens least given to evil designs.”8 The personification of Pliny's farmer-leader was Cato the Censor whose treatise on husbandry, De Agricultura, along with those by Varro, Paddadius, and Columella, were known to the middle ages and reprinted in Bruegel's time. An illustrated fifteenth-century French Cato glossatus shows Cato pointing out the importance of frequent plowing.9 Indeed, plowing summed up the labors of husbandry and was used thus for the title page of the first farming manual printed in the Renaissance, Fitzherbert's Boke of Husbandrye, 1523 (Fig. 2).10

The Roman tradition of pastoral romanticism and husbandry manuals mingled with Christian metaphor to spawn the later imagery of the good plowman. Important Scriptural sources were Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3 with their swords beaten into plowshares. Other passages referred to God's husbandry and saw in the plowman diligence and hard-won salvation.11 Most important was Luke 9:62, “Jesus said to him: No man putting his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”12 Such texts and the extensive Christian commentaries on them underlay the late medieval and Northern Renaissance esteem for the humble but diligent plowman.13

Virtuous plowing found its most common expression in sixteenth-century Netherlandish art in allegories of Peace, Diligence, and Hope. The peaceful plowman, of course, developed from the prophecized beating of “swords into plowshares” and the fulfillment of this prophecy in the Prince of Peace. Interwoven with this was a classical tradition of agricultural abundance and pastoral harmony as images of peace. Such a plowman labored in Heemskerck's engraved Allegory of Peace (1564) and in an engraved Allegory of War and Peace published by Pieter Baltens (1562) which featured the beating of swords into plowshares and contrasted the soldiers of death with the plowman of life.14 Presumably Bruegel meant to invoke such imagery when he painted a sheathed sword set aside from the plow in the lower left of his Icarus and placed a corpse in the bushes.15

Plowing as Diligence drew on the Biblical passages cited above and appeared among other places in Sebastian Brant and Erasmus.16 Invoking Luke 9:62, in a chapter from the Ship of Fools entitled “Of Persisting in the Good”, Brant wrote,


Some use a sturdy hand to plow

And first with zealousness they bow

To wisdom, for good works show will

Yet never reach the highest hill

That toward the realm of heaven's inclined;

Alas, they often look behind

And yearn for that Egyptian land

Where all their dreamed-of flesh pots stand.17


Illustrating this passage was a woodcut showing the would-be good plowman turned fool (Fig. 3). In the Enchiridion (1503), Erasmus also cited Luke in discussing the labor and good works needed for salvation.
The third point is to persevere in courses well begun. For that reason you must put stiffening in your weakness to keep from leaving the path of virtue ... you must ... neither waver nor halt nor turn aside nor having put your hand to the plow, look back, but rejoice like a giant at the course to be run ... until you receive the reward and crown promised to those who persevere.18

Luke's foolish plowman looking back also appeared in at least two sixteenth-century book illustrations. The first, a straightforward illustration, was Augustin Hirschvogel's engraving used in a typological handbook of 1550.19 The second was an emblem from Georgette de Montenay's Emblemes ou devises chrestiennes (Lyons, 1571), where the plowman worked in a more didactic context already developed by Brant and Erasmus (Fig. 4).20 The Latin motto quotes Luke 9:62, “non aptus est regno dei” (“not fit for the kingdom of God”). Following this didactic trend, the diligent plowman appeared in many Northern moralizing scenes. He worked, for example, in the right background of a mid sixteenth-century engraving attributed to Cornelis Bos entitled, Industry Rewarding Diligence and Punishing Indolence (Fig. 5). This print borrowed its foreground grouping from a lost painting by Siciolanted de Sermoneta, known only through later versions.21 Eliminating Siciolante's coastal background, Bos introduced a virtuous plowing, sowing, and harvesting behind Diligence, and a scene of thievery and capital punishment behind Indolence. As in Bruegel's Icarus, agricultural labor contrasts with death and hints at Christian overtones. God, after all, commanded Adam to till the soil. Though a punishment for sin, such labor was usually seen as a display of obedience. Thus John Gower complained in the fourteenth century of the many wicked and lazy plowman who ignored God's command. 22 In the fifteenth-century Flemish manuscript, sloth was personified by a sleeping plowman (Fig. 6).23 Although Adam was usually shown working with a shovel or branch, some artists such as Crispin van den Broeck gave him a plow, perhaps drawing on Luke's plowman to suggest a heavenly kingdom for those who labor.24

If diligence, good works, and obedience were qualities associated with plowing, hope was equally important, drawing of I Cor. 9-10: “he that ploweth should plow with hope”. Such a hopeful farmer figured in sixteenth-century Netherlandish engravings of Hope by Bruegel,25 Crispin van den Broeck (Fig. 7), and Goltzius.26 The main figure in Bruegel's Hope carried the traditional shovel and scythe, implements of husbandry that reinforced the centrality of the distant plowman to the print's meaning.27 In van den Broeck's woodcut, we note a cross on the plough, a reference perhaps to salvation through good works and to Romans 8:24: “For we are saved by hope.” Even more important was the patristic conflation of the plow and the cross because of the former's cross-like shape and wooden construction.28 It was but a simple step to see Christ (or God) as a good plowman, uprooting sin from souls with the plow-cross.29 In a similar way, the preacher became a plowman as well as a sower, uprooting and planting with God's word.30 In that Bruegel's plowman works alongside a big bag of seeds, he too is a sower and takes on that Biblical metaphor for good works as well.31

Beyond peace, diligence, and hope, plowing could also be used to symbolize prudence, as in the rear of Bruegel's engraving of that virtue.32 Like the dying man at the left who turns from his physician to confess to his priest, the plowman looks prudently to the kingdom of God.

Seen from this perspective, the plowman in Bruegel's Fall of Icarus takes on a richer, sharper contrast to Icarus than has previously been noted. If Icarus' flight towards the heavens results in a fatal plunge to the earth, the plowman's earthbound labors lead him to eternal life in heaven. This antithesis allows us to dismiss Auden's tempting analogy between Bruegel's Icarus and his religious works where secular figures ignore the sacred events unfolding around them. Presuming the Icarus depicts a tragedy ignored by a “blind”, self-absorbed world, this analogy misses Luke's idea that the virtuous plowman must stick to his work. Were he to “look back” and see the drowning Icarus, he would be “not fit for the kingdom of God”. If knowledge of the plowman's traditional iconography helps us see a positive side to his absorption, a closer look at the Icarian tradition strengthens this reading, extends the plowman's contrast with Icarus, and expands our understanding of the painting as a whole.

As scholars have noted, the Icarus borrowed its plowman, fisherman, shepherd, and partridge from Ovid's Metamorphoses.33 Despite a few tributes to Daedalus' skills, Ovid interestingly gives him the lion's share of the blame, citing his rash attempt to “change Man's very nature”. Ovid also describes how the jealous Daedalus earlier murdered his apprentice nephew, throwing the boy down the steps of Minerva's temple and hiding the crime with a lie. The goddess saved the falling boy by turning him into a partridge who later exulted over the death of Icarus.34 Elsewhere, in his Trisitia, Ovid repeats his scorn for both father and son, “for both had false wings ... one ought to remain within one's place assigned by Fortune”.35 Like Ovid, Dio Chrysostom attacked Daedalus' presumption in striving for unnatural flight and saw Icarus's death as his punishment.36 Lucian, whose works were well known to the Renaissance, cited Icarus twice as an example of foolish ambition and pride.37 He was the only classical author to describe an Icarus “falling head first into deep waters”. Perhaps then he was the source for Bruegel's unprecedented choice of a drowning rather than falling Icarus, his head submerged beneath the sea.38 Also important were Seneca's tragedies Hercules Oetaeus and Oedipus, known in at least nineteen Latin editions by 1563.39 In both works, the myth served to warn the reader against ambition and excess. Particularly interesting is Seneca's nautical imagery, unique in ancient discussions of Icarus. Also intriguing is the passage from the Hercules where the common

man exults in the fall of the mighty.
...nor does the poor man count himself full blest, unless the sees the blessed fallen

from this height.

Whoever has left the middle course fares never in path secure-

...Daedalus, cleaving his path midway the heavens, reached peaceful shores and

to no sea gave his name; but while young Icarus dared rival true birds in flight,

looking down upon his father's wings and soared aloft close to the sun itself,

to an unknown sea he gave his name ...

Let another be noised abroad as blest and great; but let no throng hail me as

powerful. Let my frail craft keep close to shore-

...misfortune passes by quiet ports and seeks for ships sailing the open seas.40


In the Oedipus, similar natical metaphors for moderation introduce the Icarian example.
Were it mine to shape fate at my will, I would trim my sails to gentle winds... May soft breezes, gently blowing, unvarying, carry my untroubled barque along; my life bear me on safely, running in middle course.

While, in fear of the Cretan king, madly the lad sought the stars, in strange

devices trusting, and strove to vanquish true birds in flight ... 41
It seems likely Bruegel's prominently placed ship, heading for the harbor with its sails being prudently trimmed, drew either directly or indirectly on Seneca.

From Ovid, Dio, Lucian, and Seneca, the Icarian myth became a Medieval and Renaissance moral topos, showing the dangers of excess, political or philosophical ambition, pride, self-deception, and ignorance of natural orders in general. A Christian reading appeared in the popular Ovide moralisé where Daedalus represented God, and Icarus was likened to Adam and Eve, doomed to a mortal fall by his aspiration to divine knowledge.42 Through a positive Icarus symbolized the Neoplatonic poet, lover, or philosopher in Italian Renaissance literature, 43 the foolish, immoderate, and self-deceiving Icarus remained predominant in the more didactic realm of Renaissance emblems, Northern humanism, and sixteenth century Netherlandish art.44

Emblem books in Italy and the North generally used Icarus to illustrate immoderacy.45 If Bruegel's Icarus strayed like Ovid's figure “from the middle way”, he was presumably no less foolish than Daedalus, who rashly sought to “change man's very nature”; “both has false wings ... one ought to remain within one's place” (Ovid).46 Indeed, Bruegel stressed the folly of Icarus and Daedalus by placing Ovid's excited partridge near the drowning Icarus, a reminder of the father's own excess, envy, and murderous rage.47

Closer to Bruegel in spirit and date was Frans Hogenberg's engraving Al Hoy of 1559 (Fig. 8).48 Derived from Bosch's famous Haywain and drawing on Netherlandish metaphors of hay for folly and worldliness, Hogenberg detailed most of the cardinal vices, using a falling Icarus in the upper right for pride and self-deception. The nearby inscription reads, “Die te hooghe wilt vlieghen, Die sal sy selven bedrieghen” (“he who intends to fly too high, he shall deceive himself”). As this text implies, the self-deception of Icarus is remedied only by self-knowledge, by a sense of one's true limitations and proper place in the wider orders of society and nature. Moderation, in short, is inseparable from self-knowledge. Three more sixteenth-century Flemish prints of unknown authorship repeated the falling Icarus as an example of pride and self-deception.49

Closer to Bruegel's painting was one of his seven engravings of ships (ca. 1565) in which the falling Icarus appeared (Fig. 9).50 Here a Christian reading of the myth seems primary. The monstrous fish and the tiny cross on the hill at upper left evoke death and salvation; only Christ's sacrifice can restore the fall of Adam-Icarus and save sea-tossed humanity from the jaws of hell. Such a reading is supported by the nautical imagery of Bruegel's engraved Last Judgement where doomed sinners plunge from a capsized boat into a hellish, fish mouth.51 In Bruegel's painted as well as engraved Icarus, death and damnation are the price for ambition and self-deception. Presumably this is why he abandoned iconographic tradition by painting Icarus drowning rather than falling. If the print used a cross to imply deliverance from the whale, the painting chose another familiar metaphor of salvation, the harbor-bound ship, also seen in Bruegel's Hope.52 Reinforcing the unusual emphasis on Icarus' death is the corpse in the bushes behind the plowman, a motif which has been sensibly related to the German proverb, “Es bleibt keiin Pflug stehen um eines Menschen willen, der stirbt” (“No plow comes to a standstill because a man dies”).53 More generally, as we have seen, the dead man evokes the plowman's age old association with peace and life and his common contrast to war and death.

Though Bruegel made only two images of the falling Icarus, foolish ascent and/or falling are common themes in his work. He painted the Tower of Babel three times,54 a Conversion (fall) of Saul,55 a Birdnester and the Peasant (about to fall), and the (falling) Blind Leading the Blind. He also designed engravings of the Fall of Simon Magus,56 a Fall of Phaeton,57 a Pride with falling figures,58 and a Skaters Outside St. George's Gate with tumbling figures.59 Finally, the related folkloric motif of the “ape or fool in high places” appeared in his Two Monkeys and Dulle Griet60.



If this context puts Icarus at the thematic center of Bruegel's art, it also sharpens the contrast in the painting between the Icarus and the plowman and leads us to note similar contrasts elsewhere in the image. Bruegel's ship, for example, sails past the watery grave of Icarus, its sailors as absorbed in their mission of reaching the harbor as is the plowman in his earthly work. While serving as a metaphor for salvation and Senecan moderation, the boat presents a simpler visual contrast to Icarus. For sailors utilize air and water in a sensible manner to get on with the business of life. Icarus' unnatural flying, already remarked by Ovid and Dio Chrysostom, is followed by an equally unnatural and iconographically unusual thrashing in the water where he proves no better as a fish. Bruegel developed further watery contrasts with Icarus through the nearby fisherman who also makes good use of the sea. With respect to the element of air, Icarus' head was submerged beneath the waves, shut off from the breath of life.61 More importantly, Bruegel juxtaposed Icarus' falling feathers with the ship's wind-filled sails (Fig. 10). This prudent use of air was strengthened by the sail trimming needed as the ship nears the dangerous rocky shore.62 This contrast between unnatural and natural air technology, feathers and sails, acquired greater irony in the context of Pliny's statement that Icarus invented sails and sailing.63 Pausanias and Diodorus even claimed Daedalus and Icarus has escaped by sailing.64

If various activities relating to earth, air, and water were stressed visually in Bruegel's Icarus, the importance of fire emerged in the iconographically unusual setting sun. Though Ovid implied a sun at high noon, Bruegel lowered it to the horizon, presumably to reinforce its importance as he did with the low, late afternoon sun in his engravings of Summer (Fig. 11). The inscription on this print reads, “Frugiferas arvis fert Aestas torrida messeis” (“Hot summer brings fertile crops to the fields”). Similarly, the hot sun in Bruegel's Icarus brings fertile crops and life to the farmer, but death to Icarus. The introduction of a setting sun may also suggest the timeless cycles of a golden age and a natural order indifferent to folly. See thus, the whole picture emerges as a cosmological panorama which goes on with its elemental rhythms, its husbandry and commerce, its life and death, its labor and folly, until the final day when those who have “plowed diligently” enter the harbor of God's kingdom.


With its elemental contrasts, the picture would have also suggested to its educated viewers one of the central questions of Renaissance humanism: what was human nature and how did it relate to nature's wider orders.65 The more conservative answer favored in the North drew on scriptural sources like Job 5:7, “Man is born to labor and the bird to fly,” and Romans 12:6, “Mind not high things but condescend to men of low estate.”66 In the Imitatio Christi, Thomas a Kempis repeatedly stressed an earthbound humility. “All men nature dearly love to know, But knowledge without fear of God-what is it worth? Better indeed a humble peasant, fearing God, Than the proud thinker who neglects himself musing on the courses of the stars.”67 Similar warnings appeared in John Ratsell's play, The Nature of the Four Elements, 1517.68 Like other humanistic plays, Ratsell's urged mankind to study its place in the world, beginning with the four elements, as a prelude to any eventual knowledge of God. Such ideas of cosmological knowledge and particularly self-knowledge were common in Northern sixteenth-century humanism.69 In his famous Apology for Raymond Sebond, Montaigne wrote.
Presumption is our natural and original malady. The most vulnerable and frail of all creatures is man, and at the same time the most arrogant. He feels and sees himself lodged here, amid the mire and dung of the world, nailed and riveted to the worst, the deadest, and the most stagnant part of the universe ... farthest from the vault of heaven ... and in his imagination he goes planting himself above the circle of the moon ... by the vanity of this same imagination ... he equals himself to God.70
Self-knowledge was particularly important in Coornhert, Heemskerck and Erasmus.71 In the Adages for example, Erasmus reiterated Plato's influential conflation of moderation and self-knowledge.72 His remarks came in a discussion of the Socratic injunction, “Nosce teipsum” (“know thyself”) “in which modesty and a middle way are commended, lest we strive for things too great for us, or else unworthy of us. For every evil of life comes from this ... “.73 True self-knowledge brings moderation and humility. In the Praise of Folly, Folly celebrated Phythagoras who “came to the conclusion that no creature is more miserable than man; for all the others are satisfied with their natural limitations, but man alone strives to go beyond the bounds proper to his station”.74 In the early days of history, before folly reigned, mankind
had too much piety to search out, with a profane curiosity, the secrets of nature; to investigate the dimensions, motions, and influences of the stars, or the hidden causes of things; deeming it a sacrilege for mortal man to try to know more than is proper to his station. This madness of inquiring what may lie beyond the sky never entered their heads.75
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