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Ekphrasis or Not? Ovid (Met. 8.183-235 ) in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

Posted by Patrick Hunt

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
c. 1558. Oil on canvas, wood-mounted (73.5 x 112 cm)
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels

Ekphrasis or description of a work of art by a verbal text is an ancient literary practice. In antiquity, Philostratus’ Imagines or Pliny’s Historia Naturalis - where he describes the paintings of Zeuxis (1) - are usually the first examples that come to mind of ekphrasis. Although millennia later, W. H. Auden has also done just that modern version of an ekphrasis in his poem “Musée des Beaux Art” (1938) describing Bruegel’s painting of the fall of Icarus. But here it is rather the opposite that is the subject of this brief commentary: when an artist like Bruegel makes a visual description of a literary text as in Ovid’s narrative, apparently also a common practice since antiquity if we remember Pompeiian wall paintings of Homer’s Odyssey or Vergil’s Aeneid. If there is a term for this other process of visualizing text (reverse ekphrasis?) other than the Latin descriptio, it is elusive to date. So this is not really ekphrasis but perhaps visual imaging (Greek eidetikos?) of a text, to borrow an idea from Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (2). Some examples of the fall of Icarus have survived in ancient Roman art; perhaps the most famous or noteworthy is the wall painting in the House of the Priest Amandus in Pompeii (3).

Pieter Bruegel’s painting, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus dating from around 1558, has been much discussed in relation to its primary source in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (8.183-235). While many of the critical comments center around the differences Bruegel innovatively highlighted in contrast to his Ovidian quotation, with Faber’s recent careful analysis coming immediately to mind, (4) it is almost universally agreed that the painter’s allusions were deliberate, especially in the triple appearances of the fisherman angling (harundine pisces), shepherd (pastor) and plowman (arator) as a motif in Met. 8.217-18:

hoc aliquis tremula dum captat harundine pisces,
aut pastor baculo stivave innixus arator

“Now someone angling with his tremulous rod
or a shepherd leaning over his crook or a plowman on his handle…”

where each is holding or leaning exactly on or over in Bruegel’s painting what Ovid takes care to mention: flexible fishing reed, crook and plow handles respectively. The liberties Bruegel took with the text are not as radical as might first appear. Where in Ovid all look up at the flying Icarus, only the plowman is looking up but with the plummeting Icarus disappearing behind him. This is nonetheless a quotation with a different intent. Taplin has noted that one of the myriad ways in which the Metamorphoses can be seen is as a “store of philosophical and ethical profundity” (5) and it is just this ethical element which must have appealed to Bruegel whose illustration of moral proverbs is justifiably famous.

Storchow points out that the parallel painting of this scene in a private collection has Daedalus still flying overhead (6) – what the shepherd notes – which makes Bruegel’s change less dramatic. Gibson also notes that the absence of Daedalus and the direct sun in the Brussels version of the painting are more likely due to subsequent repainted (pentimenti) than Bruegel’s omission. (7) Many have suggested the sun is too low on the horizon to melt waxy wings, but if the painting has been trimmed or overpainted, this would be less problematic. The old Flemish proverb most usually identified with Bruegel’s scene is “no plough stands still just because a man dies”. (8) Riemer has judiciously connected the immediately following Ovidian account of Perdix (8.236-59) to the partridge in the low tree branch just above the angler and just below the disappearing bare legs of Icarus, with the bird being the sole observer of the boy’s fall because it – transformed by a sympathetic Minerva into the partridge - is the object of Daedalus’ attempted homicide after his nephew Perdix invented saw and compass only to be jealously cast over a cliff by his uncle. Both boys, Perdix and Icarus, are flung down, one by another’s hate and the other by his own pride, but only one – Perdix - is really a victim and only one survives. Bruegel seems to assent to Ovid’s moralizing by the obvious proximity between branched bird and beached boy below a cliff similar to the crime scene of Daedalus and Perdix.


Ovid suggests many allegorical allusions and intertextualizations here (9) between the two related stories of Daedalus, Icarus and Perdix. The earthy humans - plowman, shepherd, angler - all hold something useful and practical in their hands as extensions of these same hands and instruments of livelihood, whereas Daedaus “changes the laws of nature” (naturamque novat 8.189) even in unnaturally “placing feathers in order” (ponit in ordine pennas 8.189) and Icarus ends with flailing bare arms (here appropriately invisible because they are useless compared to those of the workers) (nudos qualit ille lacertos 8.227) after pride brings him down. Bruegel may intend this as well with his humble toil-preoccupied workers in contrast to the upside-down youth whose feathers are now anything but ordered as they flutter down around him in deathly chaos. Even Bruegel’s ship seems headed for the ruin-reminding island rocks with full sails, possibly evoking the Aegean marine journeys Ovid notes passing by the islands of Samos, Delos, Paros and the like. There is no mention in Ovid about the enigmatic knife and sack lying just below the horse on the yet-unplowed tussock, nor is there anything about the equally-enigmatic pale head sticking out of the bushes around a field corner above the horse. Whatever clues may be possible for explicating these likely allegorical images, they are more likely from unknown contemporary proverbs than any Ovidian literary detail.

Some critics and historians maintain Bruegel is not making a “straightforward exposition” as much as a visual “commentary” on Ovid. (10) While it is nowhere denied that Bruegel’s primary referent is Ovid, the Flemish retelling is nonetheless filled with Bruegel’s personal moralizing about the insignificance of human life – also seen in his other later landscapes such as Hunters in the Snow (1565) - as well as the penalty of hubris. Why Bruegel’s plowman is so magnified and Icarus diminutized in contrast to Ovid is more a curious idiosyncrasy than a narrative dilemma, however, it is mostly unanswerable other than to point out, as others have also mentioned, Bruegel’s Christian tendency to elevate the community of common men over the almost-Luciferian individual who tries to become independent of God and nature. It is easy to see Bruegel’s extraction of Ovid’s stress on how Daedalus “changes the laws of nature” (naturamque novat 8.189). More to come shortly about the “monumental” size of the plowman.

Other details where Bruegel may have been inspired by Ovid can be suggested, all of them seemingly more than coincidental, although most likely requiring an erudition Bruegel may not have possessed.

First, Ovid begins his text with an excursus on earth, sea and sky (8.185-6), with Minos having blocked the former two ways of escape from Crete for Daedalus. Bruegel’s painting creates such a composite landscape with earth in the left foreground, and with sea and sky joining at the horizon at upper right center and land meeting sea at the bottom right. The mutual emphasis of both Ovid and Bruegel on the realms of nature and these three landscape elements is strengthened by the triple light: seen in the sky but also reflected on both the sea and land under the plowman’s shadow.

Second, Bruegel has likely also noted Daedalus wreaked all this havoc in his family by “unknown arts” (ignotas…artes 8.188), which he may have taken as a self-reflexive admonition to his own artistry. In Ovid, Minerva - as goddess of techne – herself feathered Perdix (8.253) like a foster mother whereas father Daedalus feathered Icarus (8.187ff) who is now defeathered (8.227-8). This Daedalian act of unnatural or imitative "feathering" may also engage Bruegel in an interesting reflection as an artist himself (who imitates and even changes nature for an audience) pondering the meaning of opifex (8.201) as "artisan" (or skilled "craftsman") in contrast to the other earthy laborers here.

Third, Ovid’s sequential order of visible humans is followed yet in reverse by Bruegel: Ovid moves from Icarus flying to the fisherman to the shepherd to the plowman to Icarus fallen. Yet Bruegel cleverly enlarges and then shrinks in opposite order from the central foreground rightward and downward in his “monumental” plowman to small shepherd, tinier angler and finally to an almost invisible Icarus on the right.


shepherd.jpg angler.jpg

Finally, perhaps one of the most interesting crux elements in Bruegel’s painting likely derived from Ovid is just this emphasis on Ovid’s Latin verb novare (in novat 8.189). In the context of the Metamorphoses, its surface meaning is “to alter or change” where, as mentioned, Daedalus “changed nature” (naturamque novat 8.189)- the best reading for Metamorphoses according to Anderson (11) - by making humans fly even if only temporarily. But a fascinating connotation Bruegel may intend as a gloss is the meaning of ager novatus, “to break up fallow ground in a field prepared by plowing” which is exactly the main visual image, especially where we cannot miss the dramatic light that falls on the freshly turned furrows under the plowman’s feet.


Is this why Bruegel has visually magnified the role of the plowman? Has he attached greater value to a “renewal” of nature (yet another connotation of novat) in plowing (ager novatus) than to Daedalus’ aggressive “altering” of nature which results in his son’s punitive death, also caused or at least compounded by his treatment of Perdix?

Although it is a given that he was a close reader of biblical literature and elsewhere often employed a Netherlandish proverb as crux to a painting, it is only fair to suspect Bruegel’s compass of the classical literature might not stretch to such a close reading of Ovid. Bruegel’s closest Antwerp friends, however, included Abraham Ortelius, the noted Humanist geographer and erudite appreciator of classical landscapes and antiquities. Subsequent author of Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1570), the Western world’s first serious and comprehensive atlas since the Roman Ptolemy. Ortelius was himself a very learned man, a “collector of antiquities” with a “passion for the Classical world” – familiar in “years-long intimacy with Herodotus and Strabo” (12) and almost certainly Ovid - thus possibly even one of several intended patrons or commissioners of this painting. Regardless of patronage, it would be likely that just such discursive conversations on Icarus would have transpired between friends like the Humanist Ortelius and the artist Bruegel.

In conclusion, whether or not Bruegel can be directly credited for much of the possible erudition in this painting, his Landscape with the Fall of Icarus is one of the most involved reverse ekphrases - here suggested as an eidetikos “imaging” quotation with multiple allusions - in art so inspired by a famous classical text of which it amply serves as a visual commentary.

Stanford University
Patrick Hunt © 2005


(1) Pliny, Historia Naturalis XXXV.36,35; Philostratus (mostly 3rd. c.), Imagines (also known as Eikones) e.g., 1.15 (among many others) describes Dionysian imagery; Pausanias (2nd c.), Description of Greece also describes many ekphrasis contexts. Additionally, Callistratus (3-4th c) wrote Ekphraseis (descriptions) of 14 statues (also known as Statuarum Descriptiones).

(2) Coleridge employs the term eidetic for the imagination's internal envisioning of objects (Biographia Literaria quoted in F. C. Prescott, The Poetic Mind, Macmillan, 1926, 153). Other than Coleridge, one of the few uses of eidetikos is late (6th c. CE ) in Olympiodorus, Platonis Alcibiadem commentarii, P. 18.c, where its mention and meaning are obscure. Perhaps another word with a more substantive application is delosis or delotikos in "pointing out", "explanation" as in Plato Minos 314a or delotos as " visible" and "able to be shown" in Aristotle's de Xenophane 979a13, although admittedly most of these connotations apply more to philosophy than visualizing. On the other hand perhaps Aristotle's phantasia as "imagination" is most applicable as the faculty of forming mental images (Rhetoric I.XI.6).

(3) Mary Beard and John Henderson. Classical Art: From Greece to Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, 45, pl. 36d. cf. Triclinium of the House of the Priest Amandus, Pompeii. Also see Lucilla Burn. The British Museum Book of Greek and Roman Art. London: British Museum Press, 1999 repr., 198, figure 167a (BM Roman Paintings 28).

(4) Riemer Faber, “The Little Bird in the Big Picture: Bruegel’s Reading of the Daedalus and Icarus Myth” Labyrinth 86 (September, 2005). Classics Dept., University of Waterloo. http://www.classics.uwaterloo.ca/labyrinth/issue86/Thelittlebirdinthebigpicture.htm. Riemer Faber. “Daedalus, Icarus, and the Fall of Perdix: Continuity and Allusion in Metamorphoses
8.183-259,” Hermes 126 (1998) 80-89. Riemer Faber, “‘A Splash Quite Unnoticed’?: W. H. Auden, Brueghel, and Ovid on the Fall of Icarus,” International Society for the Classical Tradition Conference, Tübingen, July, 1998. Cf “perdix” Met. 8.236-244.

(5) Oliver Taplin, ed. Literature in the Roman World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, 142.

(6) Wolfgang Stechow. Pieter Bruegel the Elder. New York: Abrams, 1990, esp. 50-1.

(7) Walter Gibson. Bruegel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977, esp. 38-40, pl.16-7.

(8) H. Arthur Klein and Mina C. Klein. Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Artist of Abundance. New York: Macmillan Co., 1968.

(9) Stephen Hinds. Allusion and Intertext: Dynamics of Appropriation in Roman Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, esp. 106-11. Hinds makes a huge point about Ovidian allusions and “reflexive annotations” forward and backward through his poetry

(10) Ethan M. Kavaler. Pieter Bruegel: Parables of Order and Enterprise. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, 57.

(11) W. S. Anderson. Ovid's Metamorphoses, Books 6-10. University of Oklahoma Press, 1972, 350.

(12) Paul Binding. Imagined Corners: Exploring the World’s First Atlas. London: Review/Headline Books, 2003, esp. 29-30.