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Posts Tagged ‘Icarus’

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…

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I live on the site of St Thomas More’s home in Chelsea. It was here that Holbein drew the sketches for the celebrated More family portrait. The sketches survive; but Holbein’s finished image, sadly, is lost. It was not a canvas or board, but a huge linen wall-hanging, about nine feet high and twelve feet wide.

In the 1590s Rowland Lockey made various copies of this image, with sometimes major adjustments in the composition. The best of these ‘reinterpretations’, from 1593, now hangs at Nostell Priory in West Yorkshire.

Margaret, Thomas’s favourite daughter, sits at the front of this group, holding a book in her lap, with her fingers pointing very precisely to some specific lines. There have been two puzzles. Were these lines present and given such prominence in Holbein’s original (if so, presumably on More’s instructions)? And what would their significance be?

John Guy, in his book A Daughter’s Love that I referred to a few posts ago, thinks he has the answer:

What Margaret holds up to view is no less than Seneca’s classic defence of the ‘middle way’ or unambitious life, the passage in which he counterpoints the security of a lack of ambition with the dangers of a public career.

His message is about the relationship of human beings and fate. No one can predict what will happen to those who enter the counsels of princes. Fate is an irrevocable series of causes and effects with which not even the gods can interfere. Rather than urge an honest man to take the plunge, Seneca points out to him the perils of high office and the inevitability of fate.

Using Plato’s metaphor in The Republic of the ship of state, he says if he were left to his own devices, he would trim his sails to the light westerly winds: ‘May soft breezes, gently blowing, unvarying, carry my untroubled barque along; may life bear me on safely, running in middle course.’

Most compellingly, Seneca cites the example of Icarus who, attempting to escape from prison with his father, Daedalus, flew too close to the sun so that the wax melted on his wings and he fell into the sea, where he drowned. And it is to the very line in which Seneca describes how Icarus ‘madly sought the stars’ that Margaret points with her finger. [175]

I’m not discouraging people from going into politics – far from it! But it is fascinating to discover the coded warnings given by someone as astute and involved as More to those who seek high office.

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It’s six months since I started the blog — so I’ve kept my resolution, and seen this experimental period through to its end.

I won’t give another profound reflection here on the nature of blogging, the transformation of human identity wrought by the internet, the psychology of self-doubt experienced whenever the stats page opens up, etc. This is just to say that I’ve decided to keep going and see where it all ends up.

I thought of changing the name to ‘Bridges, Tangents, and Piers’. I was in Llandudno this morning; a beautiful seaside town on the north Wales coast. It’s got one of those classic British piers, beloved of so many childhood holidays.

Llandudno Pier by Welshdan.

Llandudno pier

As a child, for me, piers were up there with bridges and tangents as objects of fascination and awe. I suppose a pier is quite literally a bridge to nowhere, a tangent caressing the curvature of the earth’s surface. It’s a suspension of disbelief — walking on water, gliding with the seagulls, and for just a moment believing you could keep walking and step out into the beyond.

My first ever screenprint for O-level art was a pier. The first layer of ink created a dark and slightly frightening latticework of pillars and crossbeams reaching down into the waves. And then in the next layer of colour, leaping from the end of the pier, was an Icarus-type figure — his wings splayed behind him like an angel, caught in that split second of uncertainty before he discovers whether he will sink or soar.

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