Monday, June 04, 2007

Hanging Marsyas

Hanging Marsyas

The story of Marsyas is one of those common to Greek myth in which a contest between a mortal and an immortal ends poorly for the mortal. He is a faun who discovers the flute cast down by Athene in disgust - it makes her face screw up when she plays it, and she would prefer not to look silly, especially when Aphrodite and Hera laugh at her. Perhaps she places a curse on the flute. These, note, are the same three goddesses from the Judgment of Paris, though the myths do not appear to be related.

Marsyas learns how to play - evidently, being a faun, he has no compunction about making his face look odd - and becomes an adept. Regrettably, either he challenges Apollo or Apollo him - I don't know, and I don't think it matters - and they play, at first, to a draw. Apollo, whose instrument is the lyre, then adds his voice, and plays his instrument upside down, no doubt giving later adepts like Charlie Patton or Jimi Hendrix the idea. When Marsyas is unable either to play his instrument upside down or to add his voice, Apollo wins the contest. His prize is to bind Marsyas to a tree and have his flesh stripped off.

The original was apparently a group, consisting, in addition to our Marsyas, a brutal slave preparing to torture the faun and Apollo, sitting around waiting for the show to begin.

The myth of Marsyas, then, becomes the myth of the artist - the suffering artist - who must undergo the most horrible flaying just for plying his trade in a world where competition leads to winners and losers. Marsyas may lose the contest, but he wins the myth. It becomes a favorite subject for artists, and makes for one of Titian's greatest achievements.

The evocation of pain in this piece is done through the attenuated body, with the ribs all sticking out. The face is remarkably placid; he accepts his fate. This is what makes the piece - and the myth - so potent. We feel the pain through the modeling effects on the body. We approach the stoic suffering, the experience of pain and the consciousness of taking it, of rising above it, through our awareness of the contrast between the painful body and the passive, composed face. Marsyas becomes, here, a tragic figure, contrasting, for example, both with the infamous companion piece, a Scythian slave, shown as a brutal, unthinking torturer - right out of central casting, with flat brow and everything - who sharpens the knife that will tear off the faun's flesh, and with the celebrated Laocoon, whose face reflects as much, or more, anguish as his body.

In class discussion, we generally discover the similarities between this piece and representations of the suffering Christ on the cross - Christus patiens - though I doubt if there is a direct link between the two. In the first centuries of Christian art, the cross was rarely used as a motif; Christ's suffering does not become a significant motif until, I think, after the influence of St. Francis.