How Apollo Was Flaying Marsyas

The origins of this post date back to July 2008. I went to London and visited Victoria and Albert Museum. I spent most of my time there admiring sculptures by Rodin, Canova and Lord Leighton, and it was there that I came across the group by Antonio Corradini, Apollo Flaying Marsyas. The group dated back to 1719-1723 and was originally at the royal gardens in Dresden. It was not unusual to see such group in the place where the high and mighty would walk: in the Summer Garden in St. Petersburg one of the sculptures depicted Uranus devouring his child – hardly a pleasant composition to behold during a lazy afternoon promenade. Yet Corradini’s sculpture was disturbing in a very peculiar way. Apollo, armed with this huge garden knife, skins Marsyas’s leg, while watching a poor satyr with the most curious expression: the god is either surprised by the satyr’s reaction, or he is gently reminding Marsyas that such was supposed to be the punishment, so “no sulking now!” I was particularly impressed by the contrast of the scene’s brutality and by Apollo’s gentle musical fingers holding Marsyas’s leg as if it was a cello’s body.

When I looked around for representations of this story by other artists, my surprise grew even bigger to some extent. As you can see in the presentation below, artists were not unanimous on how to depict Marsyas. According to some variants of the legend, he was a satyr; in other cases he was a peasant. This may explain why in some paintings Marsyas appears as a man, and not as half-goat. Neither were they unanimous in showing Apollo’s involvement. Although the majority of painters or sculptors showed the god heavily involved in punishing the satyr, some, like Titian, gave Apollo a Nero-esque look, putting him almost in the background, giving him the lyre and making him the onlooker.

It may be tempting to reflect on the social undertone of the legend. The god of Sun whose power was challenged by a peasant takes to punish the offender most severely… and if the peasant was in fact a satyr, half-goat that is to say, so the “social” component of the story was even more prominent. As much as this social undertone cannot be denied (which may explain why Antonio Corradini’s sculpture had been gracing the royal gardens), what is probably more interesting is the opportunity the story of Apollo and Marsyas was giving to showcase the awareness of human anatomy, emotions, and the developments in medical science. Apollo in the paintings by Jordaens, de Ribera and Carpioni strikes the pose that would normally be seen in the anatomical theatre – that of an experienced surgeon and anatomist. Marsyas wriggling his body in agonising pain, his face distorted, was once again a great opportunity to put to work the knowledge gained in hospitals, battlefields, and prisons. And not once do we see the artist meticulously showing us the process of skinning the poor satyr. It was about bones, meat, and tissues rather than politics – let alone mythology.

Links:

Marsyas “biography” at Wikipedia.
Marsyas: Satyr of Lydia (with quotations from primary sources) at Theoi.
Apollo myths at Yahoo! Geocities.

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