This curious painting, created by the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (c. 1696-1770), was inspired by the myth of Apollo and Marsyas. In this artwork, the god, Apollo, is represented by the scantily clad man with the white-colored cloth draped across his lap. As for Marsyas, he is shown as the satyr on the right side of the painting, seen carrying a reed pipe. As the story goes, the two entities met that day after Marsyas challenged Apollo to a music competition. Giovanni Battista Tiepolo displays this meeting and contest in a peaceful and non-violent manner. Unfortunately, this peace and non-violence would not last.
Apollo, as it turns out, was quite annoyed by Marsyas’ presumptuous challenge. He agreed to it, of course, but—as is typical of the gods—Apollo did not appreciate being tested. Such is the prelude to the peaceful scene shown above.
Marsyas, unfortunately, lost the music competition against the god, and when the challenger was defeated, Apollo took the opportunity to vent all of his pent-up wrath against the satyr that had tried to be his equal. Suffice it to say, Apollo did not show sportsmanship and grace in victory. Instead, he subjected Marsyas to a bloody and agonizing punishment—flaying. The Roman poet, Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE), vividly described what happened next.
“In spite of his cries, the skin was peeled from his flesh, and his body
was turned into one great wound; the blood was pouring all over him,
muscles were fully exposed, his uncovered veins convulsively
quivered; the palpitating intestines could well be counted,
and so could the organs glistening through the wall of his chest.”
(Ovid, Metamorphosis, 6.387-391)
Marsyas, of course, did not survive the flaying that was imposed on him. As the story goes, Marsyas’ many friends shed such a quantity of tears in mourning the loss of their loved one that a river was formed, carrying their grief to the sea. All of this pain and loss, however, was averted by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, as he froze the scene before any blood was spilt.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.