This illustration, from a manuscript known as The Book of the Queen (specifically Harley 4431, f. 108), was attributed to an artist labeled as the Master of the Cité des Dames (c. 1410-c. 1414). The artwork re-creates a myth about the god, Phoebus Apollo (seen here with a sun-imposed head), competing in a music competition against the satyr-god, Pan. Famous King Midas of Phrygia—the crowned figure below the musicians—is featured in the artwork and the myth, but his role as a judge in this story was actually quite happenstance. For the showdown between Apollo and Pan, a mountain god named Tmolus was the official judge. Midas, however, 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).
Such is the mythological tale that inspired this illustration. As the quote above conveyed, King Midas ultimately sided with Pan during the musical showdown, and that bold decision resulted in a noticeable punishment (one that was included in the drawing)—Apollo transformed Midas’ ears to look as if they belonged on a donkey. Those peculiar ears seem to be the feather-like objects seen jutting out from underneath King Midas’ crown in the artwork.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.