Musee des Beaux Arts - W.H. Auden

W.H.Auden And A Summary of Musee des Beaux Arts

Auden apparently wrote Musée des Beaux Arts in December 1938 after visiting the museum then called the Musée Royal des BeauxArts in Brussels.  This poem mentions specifically the following painting (Breughel’s Icarus) where everything goes on as normal despite the suffering of one man who’s falling from the sky because he flew too close to the sun with his wings made of wax. There also seem to be references to other paintings which I share below. 

Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

Musee des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Notes on this poem:

In his well-known textbook on the problem of evil, Mark Larrimore describes this painting showing "world’s indifference to and unwillingness to recognize suffering." The poem that focuses on human suffering, tragedy and pain by contrasting the lives of those who suffer and those who do not. The vehicle by which this is achieved is the world of painting, in particular the work of the old masters. 

This is what its trying to depict: whether it is something miraculous happening, like the birth of Jesus Christ, or something disastrous happening, like the fall of Icarus, most of the world is oblivious and keeps doing what it was doing. The children keep skating on a pond at the edge of the wood while Christ is born. Miraculous happenings or disasters happening in one part of the world are not the focal point of most people and animals - they keep doing what they normally do. 

This nonchalance is what Guru Nanak calls "beparvaahi" - an attribute of God, which is instilled equally in nature and therefore in humanity.

Other artwork that potentially influenced Auden in writing this poem:
  • Landscape with the Fall of Icarus 
  • The Census at Jerusalem
  • The Massacre of the Innocents 
  • Philippe de Champaigne’s Presentation in the Temple 
  • Peter Paul Rubens’s The Martyrdom of St Livinus

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus 

In Greek mythology, Icarus succeeded in flying, with wings made by his father Daedalus, using feathers secured with beeswax. Ignoring his father's warnings, Icarus chose to fly too close to the sun, melting the wax, and fell into the sea and drowned. His legs can be seen in the water just below the ship. The sun, already half-set on the horizon, is a long way away; the flight did not reach anywhere near it. Daedalus does not appear in this version of the painting, though he does, still flying, in the van Buuren one (see left).

The ploughman, shepherd and angler are mentioned in Ovid's account of the legend; they are: "astonished and think to see gods approaching them through the aether", which is not entirely the impression given in the painting. The shepherd gazing into the air, away from the ship, may be explained by another version of the composition (see below); in the original work there was probably also a figure of Daedalus in the sky to the left, at which he stares. There is also a Flemish proverb (of the sort imaged in other works by Bruegel): "And the farmer continued to plough..." (En de boer ... hij ploegde voort") pointing out the ignorance of people to fellow men's suffering. The painting may, as Auden's poem suggests, depict humankind's indifference to suffering by highlighting the ordinary events which continue to occur, despite the unobserved death of Icarus.

Though the world landscape, a type of work with the title subject represented by small figures in the distance, was an established type in Early Netherlandish painting, pioneered by Joachim Patinir, to have a much larger unrelated "genre" figure in the foreground is original and represents something of a blow against the emerging hierarchy of genres. Other landscapes by Bruegel, for example The Hunters in the Snow (1565) and others in that series of paintings showing the seasons, show genre figures in a raised foreground, but not so large relative to the size of the image, nor with a subject from a "higher" class of painting in the background.

However, paintings from the same period by the Antwerp artist Pieter Aertsen had large kitchen or market genre scenes, with large figures in the foreground, and in the distant background a glimpse of a scene from the Life of Christ. Giving more prominence to "low" subject-matter than "high" in the same work is a feature of some Northern Mannerist art, often called "Mannerist inversion". The traditional moral of the Icarus story, warning against excessive ambition, is reinforced by (literally) fore-grounding humbler figures who appear content to fill useful agricultural roles in life.

The Census at Jerusalem

The painting shows Bethlehem as a Flemish village in winter at sundown. A group of people is gathered at a building on the left, having their details taken down by a scribe. A sign bearing the Habsburg double-headed eagle is visible on the building. Other people are making their way to the same building, including the figures of Joseph and the pregnant Virgin Mary on a donkey. A pig is being slaughtered, though of course such an event would never have occurred in Jewish Bethlehem. People are going about their daily business in the cold, children are shown playing with toys on the ice and having snowball fights. At the very centre of the painting is a spoked wheel, sometimes interpreted as being a reference to the wheel of fortune. To the right, a man in a small hut is shown holding a clapper, a warning to keep away from leprosy. Leprosy was endemic in that part of Europe when the painting was created. There is a begging bowl in front of the hut. In the background, men drink at a makeshift bar, and in the distance are a well-kept church and a crumbling castle.

As he often did, Bruegel treats a biblical story, here the census of Quirinius, as a contemporary event. And once again, reference to particular political events has been adduced - in this case, the severity of the Spanish administration in the southern Netherlands.[2] However, Bruegel may well be making a more general criticism of bureaucratic methods.[3]

The events depicted are described in Luke 2, 1-5:

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered... So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child.
— Luke 2:1-5, NKJV[4]

This is a rare subject in previous Netherlandish art. The ruined castle in the background, at the painting's top right, is based on the towers and gates of Amsterdam.[5]

The Massacre of the Innocents

The Massacre of the Innocents is the incident described in the nativity narrative of the Gospel of Matthew (2:16–18) in which Herod the Great, king of Judea, orders the execution of all male children who are two years old and under in the vicinity of Bethlehem. The Catholic Church regards them as the first Christian martyrs, and their feast – Holy Innocents' Day (or the Feast of the Holy Innocents) – is celebrated on 28 December.[2] A majority of Herod biographers, and "probably a majority of biblical scholars," hold the event to be myth, or legend.

The Gospel of Matthew tells how the Magi visit Jerusalem to seek guidance as to where the king of the Jews has been born; King Herod directs them to Bethlehem and asks them to return to him and report, but they are warned in a dream that Herod wishes to find the child and kill him, and do not do so. Matthew continues:

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.
— Matthew 2:16

This is followed by a reference to and quotation from the Book of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:15): "Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more." (Matthew 2:17-18). The relevance of this to the massacre is not immediately apparent, as Jeremiah's next verses go on to speak of hope and restoration.

Presentation in the Temple 

The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple (or in the temple) is an early episode in the life of Jesus Christ, describing his presentation at the Temple in Jerusalem, that is celebrated by many churches 40 days after Christmas on Candlemas, or the "Feast of the Presentation of Jesus". The episode is described in chapter 2 of the Gospel of Luke in the New Testament.[1] Within the account, "Luke's narration of the Presentation in the Temple combines the purification rite with the Jewish ceremony of the redemption of the firstborn (Luke 2:23–24)."

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Presentation of Jesus at the temple is celebrated as one of the twelve Great Feasts, and is sometimes called Hypapante (Ὑπαπαντή, "meeting" in Greek).

The Orthodox Churches which use the Julian Calendar celebrate it on 15 February, and the Armenian Church on 14 February.

In Western Christianity, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord is also known by its earlier name as the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin or the Meeting of the Lord. In some liturgical calendars, Vespers (or Compline) on the Feast of the Presentation marks the end of the Epiphany season, also (since the 2018 lectionary) in the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (EKD). In the Church of England, the mother church of the Anglican Communion, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple is a Principal Feast celebrated either on 2 February or on the Sunday between 28 January and 3 February. In the Roman Catholic Church, especially since the time of Pope Gelasius I (492-496) who in the fifth century contributed to its expansion, the Feast of the Presentation is celebrated on 2 February.

In the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, and the Lutheran Church, the episode was also reflected in the once-prevalent custom of churching of women forty days after the birth of a child. The Feast of the Presesentation of the Lord is in the Roman Rite also attached to the World Day of Consecrated Life.

The Martyrdom of St Livinus 

The legend goes that Livinus was born from Irish nobility. Upon studies in England, where he visited Saint Augustine of Canterbury, he returned to Ireland. He later went on a peregrinatio Domini and left Ireland for Ghent (Belgium) and Zeeland (Netherlands) where he preached. During one of his sermons, Livinus was attacked in the village of Esse, near Geraardsbergen by a group of pagans who cut off his tongue and head.[2]

The villages of Sint-Lievens-Esse, where he was murdered, and Sint-Lievens-Houtem, where he was buried, were named after him, as well as Merck-Saint-Liévin in northern France.

His remains were transferred to Ghent around the turn of the millennium, but went missing and are believed to have been destroyed in 1578 during the Second Iconoclasm.

This is an episode from the life of the Irish missionary St Livinus, who preached in Flanders and Zeeland in the first half of the seventh century. Whilst attempting to convert non believers, he was attacked by godless robbers who tore out his tongue and threw it to the dogs. God punished his assailants with a devastating thunderbolt. The painting is the 'modello' for an enormous canvas (414 x 347 cm) that Rubens painted for the St Livinus Church in Ghent. The painting currently hangs in the museum in Brussels.

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This reminds me of Jack Kerouac's poem In Vain which asks the question, "Of what use are the best things in the world?"