Symbolic culture clash at the end of empire
by Mary Logan
“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. . . . The husbandman was a familiar paragon of industry, moderation, and moral integrity, both in classical and early Christian writings. . . . 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.” 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.” . . . 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.” (Baldwin, 1986, p. 101).
Thanks to Gail at Wit’s End for the Baldwin/Bruegel links above. The painting represents the tensions between agrarian and urban society that has occurred over and over in civilizations throughout history, as we pulse up into civilizations that later fail. Bruegel’s good plowman, sensible sailors, shepherd, and fishermen in the painting above are symbolic of a culture that harnesses earth, wind, and sun to live within the restraints of nature, in contrast to foolish, ambitious Icarus. Early scholars associated Icarus with urban technologies of “kingdoms doomed to fall.” What symbolic culture will represent us as empire wanes? Continue reading