One of the most enduring tales from Greek mythology is the tragic fate of Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the sun.
Icarus was the son of Daedalus, a master craftsman who had designed the labyrinth of Crete. The labyrinth was built for King Minos to house the Minotaur, a terrifying creature which had the body of a man and the head of a bull. For those unfortunate enemies of Crete, they were locked in the labyrinth and – unable to escape – devoured by the minotaur inside.
However, one man, Theseus (one of Crete’s greatest enemies), managed to escape the deadly trap. King Minos, in his fury, became paranoid. The only man who knew the secrets of the labyrinth was its designer, Daedalus. Had Daedalus helped Theseus escape? Had he shared the labyrinth’s secrets? In what other ways was he betraying his king?
Although Daedalus was innocent of the crime, he was locked up in a soaring tower with his son, Icarus. But the ingenious Daedalus was not content to await his fate in captivity. Instead, he developed an escape plan. Using feathers, threads from blankets, clothes, and beeswax, Daedalus built two sets of wings for him and his son to fly from the tower to safety. It was a risky plan, and Daedalus took care to warn his son of the dangers: “Do not fly too high or too low”, said father to son, “in case the sea’s dampness clogs the wings or the sun’s heat melts their wax”.
But Icarus, buoyed by the thrill of human flight, and brazenly confident, didn’t adhere to his father’s instructions. Icarus soared higher and higher, only to seal his own fate. His wings melted in the heat of the Greek sun, he plunged to the sea and drowned. The myth gave rise to the idiom, ‘don’t fly too close to the sun’, a warning against being overly ambitious or greedy.
A Victorian inspiration
This tragic tale has been a rich source of inspiration for writers and artists, most notably Herbert James Draper, an English Classicist painter who worked in the late Victorian era and the first decades of the 20th century.
Draper chose to depict the moment after Icarus’ fall. In his oil painting, ‘The Lament for Icarus’ from 1898, Icarus lies motionless. He is cradled in his enormous, bird-of-paradise-esque wings, and surrounded by lamenting nymphs. The scene is highly dramatic, and typical of late-Victorian romanticism in painting and sculpture.
In the distance, the sun – the cause of Icarus’ downfall – sets, and fills the scene with a golden light. The final glimmers of sunlight highlights the transience of time, and echoes the tragic scene which has just unfolded, marking the end of Icarus’ life. Icarus’ darker tone of tanned skin – compared to the pearly alabaster skin of the nymphs – hints at his recent flight in the sun.
The scene of this naked, dead man, surrounded by mourners is a sure nod to a visual which was common in the Western canon of art, and familiar to Draper’s audience – that of Christ descending from the cross. For example, ‘The Entombment of Christ’ by the Italian painter Caravaggio, bears several uncanny similarities with Draper’s work.
However, whilst Christ’s death is ultimately an uplifting story to inspire faith, Icarus’s death is a moralising tale which demonstrates an epic failure, the tragic result of human folly. To increase the impact and heighten the drama, Draper has taken liberties with the original myth – Icarus still has his angelic wings fully intact (despite it usually retold that the wax melted and left Icarus falling without them).
A modern sensation
Draper’s work was created at the turn of the century in 1898 and was well received at the time. It was bought from the Royal Academy exhibition through a public fund for purchasing modern art, the Chantrey Bequest. Once more, it was awarded the gold medal at the Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris.
The themes in this work were particularly appealing to the late 19th century audiences. Charles Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859 provoked widespread discussion regarding the evolution of humankind, and also pointed debate to a deep and obscure past. The blurred lines between history and myth, and struggles between animal and human nature were of particular interest – themes reflected in Draper’s tragic canvas.