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Work The Torment of Marsyas

Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Hellenistic Art (3rd-1st centuries BC)

The Flaying of Marsyas

© 2006 Musée du Louvre / Daniel Lebée et Carine Deambrosis

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Hellenistic Art (3rd-1st centuries BC)

Author(s):
Astier Marie-Bénédicte, Lepetoukha Charlotte

The torment of Marsyas illustrates the taste for pathos in Hellenistic art. Marsyas was a silenus, or companion of Dionysos; a celebrated pipe-player, he boasted that he was a better musician than Apollo. Beaten in a musical contest with the god, Marsyas was condemned to be flayed alive by a Scythian slave. Suspended from the trunk of a tree, he awaits his terrible punishment. The scene is based on an original Hellentistic group from the late third century BC.

A silenus in torment

This large statue portrays a silenus, a member of Dionysos's retinue, whose animal nature is indicated by his pointed ears, wild mane of hair and tail emerging from the small of his back. His arms, lashed to a tree trunk at the wrists, bear the weight of his body, which is stretched and pulled, elongating the stomach and causing the ribs to stick out. The silenus's aged face is taut - racked with fear and pain.

The punishment of Marsyas

The statue is clearly a depiction of the torment of Marsyas. After learning to play a flute discarded by the goddess Athena, Marysas arrogantly challenged Apollo to a musical contest. The Muses declared Apollo the victor, and the god punished Marysas for his pride (or hubris) by condemning him to be flayed alive by a Scythian slave.
A number of copies and reliefs attest to the existence and popularity of the original statuary group depicting the legend. Thanks to these, the original composition may be reconstructed as follows: Marsyas, hanging from the tree, would have been flanked on the left by a crouching slave, sharpening his knife and raising his head towards the silenus, who returns his gaze. The figure of Apollo was probably standing to the right.

Pathétique pergaménien

The work is a Roman copy of a Hellenistic original created at Pergamon in Asia Minor, in the second half of the third century BC. The legend of Marsyas was a favorite subject among artists as early as the fifth century BC, as seen in the early sculptural group by Myron, represented in the Louvre by a figure of Athena (inventory number Ma 2208). The Myron group illustrates the preceding episode in the story, namely the musical contest and its tragic ending. Here, the Hellenistic artist has chosen to represent the instant before punishment - the moment when victim and torturer exchange one last look, and the tension is at its peak.
This dramatic atmosphere corresponds perfectly to the Pergamene school's taste for pathos. The subject is a pretext for a study of the face and the human body; the theatricality and emotionality of the scene are heightened by the play of light across the uneven surfaces of Marsyas's body, distorted by pain.
This statue is also a formidable counterpoint to the history of Greek sculptural experimentation. From the frontal static pose of the early kouroi, to the contrapposto of the fifth century BC, Greek sculptors sought to place the human body upright, and to study the resulting musculature. Here, by depicting a suspended body, the sculptor has freed Marsyas from the weight of his own body and circumvented the problem of contrapposto. The statue represents an entirely new approach to the representation of the male nude: no longer a study of musculature and human strength in action, but an exploration of heightened muscular tension as a result of external duress.

Bibliography

Borbein (A. H.), "Die Statue des hängenden Marsyas", in Verlag des Kunstgeschichtlichen seminars, Hans Herter zum 75. Geburtstag, 1974, p. 37-52, fig. 9-12
Weis (A.), The Hanging Marsyas and its copies, Rome, 1992, p. 185-187, n 32, fig. 17, 19 et 32
Sismondo-Ridgway (B.), Hellenistic Sculpture, t. II, The University of Wisconsin Press, 2000, pp. 283-285

Technical description

  • The Flaying of Marsyas

    Roman, Imperial
    (1st-2nd century AD)

    Provenance: Rome (Italy)

  • Marble

    H. 2.56 m

  • Former Borghese collection.
    Purchased in 1807 , 1807

    Inventaire MR 267 (n° usuel Ma 542)

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Sully wing
    Ground floor
    Salle des Caryatides
    Room 17

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Additional information about the work

The top of the tree, various parts of Marsyas's body, and the head have been restored.