I was at Compton Verney recently to see a fascinating exhibition entitled Flight and the Artistic Imagination. It brought together all sorts of images and objects, many of them religious, about the almost universal human desire to fly. Part of the interest was seeing how different strands of mythology and culture could be woven together so unexpectedly.
The central theme of the first room, of course, was Icarus.
Son of Daedalus who dared to fly too near the sun on wings of feathers and wax. Daedalus had been imprisoned by King Minos of Crete within the walls of his own invention, the Labyrinth. But the great craftsman’s genius would not suffer captivity. He made two pairs of wings by adhering feathers to a wooden frame with wax. Giving one pair to his son, he cautioned him that flying too near the sun would cause the wax to melt. But Icarus became ecstatic with the ability to fly and forgot his father’s warning. The feathers came loose and Icarus plunged to his death in the sea.
But taking up a whole wall in the same room was Zurbaran’s Levitation of St Francis (I can’t find a copyright free image unfortunately), with St Francis in ecstasy, gazing up to heaven, flying through the sky, with nothing to frame him except the clouds.
At the same time as the exhibition explored the hugely important science of ballooning, and various artistic and cartographic responses to the first experiences of aircraft flight, it also looked at the biblical subject of Jacob’s ladder from Genesis 28, which reached to heaven and on which the angels of God ascended and descended.
So the various themes were eclectic, but there was a thought-provoking and unforced unity about the whole exhibition: our desire to fly, to escape from our earthly confines, to gain a more expansive vision, to pierce not just the clouds but the heavens. It was a beautiful way of reflecting on the search for transcendence.
Really it should have ended, at the scientific level, with the Hubble telescope, which has allowed us to see through the heavens of our own galaxy and to look beyond into the vastness of the universe – without satisfying the hunger to see still further beyond.
And at the spiritual level the best crowning image would have been not St Francis levitating, but the Ascension of Jesus or the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, when human nature was lifted up and taken through the veil into heaven itself. There are so many great artistic representations of feet seen from below – I’m thinking for example of the Slipper Chapel in Walsingham.
I’ve always enjoyed the Icarus story. My main project for O-level art at school (yes, I am old enough to remember O-levels) was developing a screen print of an Icarus figure leaping from the end of a pier and falling into the sea below. Designing the engineering of the pier structure gave me great delight – I love piers. And the mixture of hope and tragedy appealed to me. Maybe tragedy isn’t the right word; I think my image managed to convey the idea that it was better for Icarus to have tried and failed than not to have tried at all. I took him as a heroic rather than a foolish figure; not just disregarding his father’s warnings, but truly believing that the wax might hold – and that it would be worth it.
It’s an argument for prayer for those who have no faith: it’s better to try, knowing that in theory it might be possible, even if you don’t yet have the personal experience or the objective evidence to prove it for yourself. The tragedy would be not taking the opportunity, not taking the risk. You wouldn’t crash to the ground, like Icarus; you’d just find yourself sitting comfortably in the same seat – maybe more enlightened, maybe more curious, maybe still puzzled, or perhaps completely anticlimaxed. But what is there to lose? I know, it’s not that simple…