This painting, attributed to the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano (c. 1459-1517), re-creates a myth about the god, Apollo, competing in a music competition against a satyr. Cima da Conegliano seems to fuse two myths in which Apollo musically dueled against satyr challengers. One is the myth directly mentioned in the artwork’s title—that of Marsyas—in which a satyr named Marsyas lost a competition against Apollo and was horribly flayed alive afterwards by the victor. Cima da Conegliano’s inclusion of the Phrygian King Midas, however, draws on a separate myth in which Apollo competed against the satyr-god, Pan. For that showdown between Apollo and Pan, a mountain god named Tmolus was the official judge, but Midas had the fortune…or misfortune…of being at the right place and the right time to join Tmolus in witnessing the godly competition. Ovid (c. 43 BCE-17 CE), a Roman poet, described the scene that followed:
“So Pan performed on his rustic pipes,
and his barbarous strains entranced the ears of Midas, who chanced
to be there when he played. When the piece was finished, Tmolus solemnly
turned his head in Apollo’s direction, and so did his forest.
Phoebus was crowned with a wreath of Parnassian bay on his golden
hair, and he swept the ground with his mantle of Tyrian purple.
His lyre richly inlaid with jewels and Indian ivory.
Holding the instrument firm in his left hand, plectrum in his right,
he struck the pose of a maestro; and then he plucked at the strings
with his practiced thumb, till Tmolus, enthralled by the beautiful music,
notified Pan that his pipes must yield the palm to the lyre.
All agreed with the judgment pronounced by the sacred mountain;
only Midas challenged the verdict and called it unfair.”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, 11.160-173).
Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano re-creates this tale, albeit with a touch of fashion and archaeology from his own era. The goat-legged figure in the painting, obviously, is the artist’s representation of the satyr, either Marsyas or Pan, while the other figure wielding an instrument would be Apollo. Watching over the competition could only be Tmolus and Midas, and since the title of the artwork says, The Judgement of Midas, Cima da Conegliano likely placed Midas in the center of the painting, letting the mythical king steal the role of lead judge from Tmolus, who is likely depicted by the figure leaning on a stick beside Apollo. As for the aftermath of the competition, Apollo was not happy that Midas sided with Pan. Therefore, wrathful Apollo transformed Midas’ ears to look as if they belonged on a donkey.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.