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apollo-and-marsyas-1637

José de Ribera (1591 – 1652) was one of the greatest of Spanish artists. I paint–I studied very seriously with a master portraitist for many years–and I can usually understand how a painting was put together and executed, but the craftmanship of Ribera paintings tends to stand beyond my comprehension. When I come across one of his works in a museum, the dazzling virtuosity leaves me stupefied. He should be one of the foremost of the old masters…his name upon every lip like Rembrandt, Tintoretto, or Caravaggio. Yet in the museum, I see the other visitors turn away from his canvases.

Though a Spaniard, Ribera studied in Italy, and spent most of his life working there. In the 17th century, the peninsula was divided by great powers, and Spain, at the zenith of its empire, controlled the Kingdom of Naples. Ribera, a Spaniard who painted exquisitely in the Italian style was the favorite of the Spanish viceroys who ruled Naples. Ribera is an exceedingly great painter, but he was an exceedingly dark painter…a Tenebrist, and he is said to have had a matching dark personality. There are whispers that he utilized ruthless court intrigue and outright violence to monopolize worthwhile artistic commissions in Naples (a city with its own shadowside and a sinister history). This brings us to today’s dark artwork which I have put at the top of the post. This is “Apollo and Marsyas” (Jusepe de Ribera, 1637, oil on canvas). Ribera’s art combined the dark action and shadowy super-realism of Caravaggio with the deliquescent supernatural otherworldiness of Corregio (a puissant and disquieting combination). Here is the nightmare denouement of the tale of Apollo and Marsyas (you should reacquaint yourself with the myth if you are unfamiliar). A pure black diagonal bar slashes across the composition: Marsyas is inside that void, upside down, screaming in agony as the flaying begins. Apollo looms above him, both an omnipotent god and an implacable killer. His red cloak billows behind him like a tunnel of blood through which he has burst into the mortal world. The witnesses look on in dazed shock or scream outright at the nature of the proceedings. The instruments of music are cast aside forgotten, as violence and pain take center stage. It is a bloodbath on canvas–a horror movie painted by the matchless hand of an all-time master.

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And here is where Ribera goes wrong. The son of a shoe-maker painted his way to unparalleled wealth and status. Through his hard work and ruthless machinations, his family was enobled, but the struggle cast shadows across his work. There is real sadism in the beautiful and intent visage of Apollo as he fingers the incarnadine slit. There is true pain in the inverted face of Marsyas. Look at the other works of Ribera–they are all so gorgeous…but they are all so awful. In the allegory of Apollo and Marsyas, a personal challenge each artist must face, Ribera cast himself as Apollo. He and his art failed a moral challenge. Look upon it, dear reader, are there tests which you are failing too?

The competition between Marsyas and Apollo on a Roman sarcophagus (290–300) marble

The competition between Marsyas and Apollo on a Roman sarcophagus (290–300) marble

The aulos was a woodwind instrument of classical antiquity.  The word is sometimes mis-translated as “double flute” but the instrument was not a flute, instead it had reeds–like an oboe or a clarinet.  In classical mythology, the aulos was invented by Athena, the glorious goddess of wisdom and favorite child of Zeus.  The first aulos made beautiful music, but it caused the goddess’ cheeks to puff out–which was at odds with her dignified self-image and caused the other gods to laugh.  In disgust she hurled the instrument down into the mortal world where it was found by the satyr Marsyas who picked it up and began to play melodies never heard before.   Marsyas became the first great aulos master.  He wandered through forests and fields on his two hooves playing the pipes in celebration of the pastoral and sylvan beauty he observed.
Apollo and Marsyas (John Melhuish Strudwick, 1879, oil on canvas)

Apollo and Marsyas (John Melhuish Strudwick, 1879, oil on canvas)

One day, Marsyas saw the radiant god Apollo playing his lyre (which, in Greco-Roman society, was the instrument of the aristocracy).  Lord Apollo was clad in the costliest raiment and equipped with the finest gold trappings.  He was inhumanly beautiful…dangerously beautiful.  Marsyas was overwhelmed: he was a crude goat-man, and Apollo was the god of music (and sunshine, and medicine, and prophecy).  At this juncture, Marsyas made a fateful choice–he decided to challenge glorious Apollo to a musical contest. The winner would be able to “do whatever he wanted” with the loser. Marsyas, a satyr (synonymous, in the classical world, with lust) thus imagined that he would “win” or “be won” no matter which way the the competition worked out.

Apollo and Marsyas (Pietro Perugino, late 15th century)

Apollo and Marsyas (Pietro Perugino, late 15th century)

Apollo grew oddly enflamed by the challenge and agreed readily–with one stipulation of his own.  The muses, the goddesesses of art, would judge the event.  Now the muses were daughters of Apollo, both figuratively and literally. To a disinterested observer the arrangement might smack dangerously of favoritism, but Marsyas was blinded by longing and besotted by hist art.

Apollo and Marsyas (Hans Thoma, 1888, oil on canvas)

Apollo and Marsyas (Hans Thoma, 1888, oil on canvas)

The two musicians set up beside a river and began to play.  Apollo played a complicated piece about laws and lords and kings.  It sparkled like sunshine.  It grew oppressively magnificent like the great gods of high Olympus.  It ended like glittering starlight in the cold heavens.  Next Marsyas played and his music was completely different–it spoke to the longing of the weary herdsman coming home at sundown.  It was about the mist rising from furrowed farmlands, about fruit trees budding in the orchard, and about the soft places where the meadows run out into the rivers.

Contest of Apollo and Marsyas, 350-320 BC from Mantineia. Part of the Base of a Sculpture,

Contest of Apollo and Marsyas, 350-320 BC from Mantineia. Part of the Base of a Sculpture,

The muses listened closely to the music and made their choice. “These pieces are played by opposite beings on dissimilar instruments.  The works have completely different subjects, but both pieces are perfect.  Neither is clearly “better” than the other.”  Sublime music had won the contest!

The Contest between Apollo and Marsyas (Tintoretto, About 1545 Oil on canvas)

The Contest between Apollo and Marsyas (Tintoretto, About 1545
Oil on canvas)

But Apollo was not satisfied.  There are two versions of the story: in one he turned his lyre upside down and played it as well as ever (Marsyas, of course, could not do the same with the aulos).  In the other version, Apollo played the lyre and sang (also impossible with the aulos).  “I have two arts, whereas Marsyas has only one!” he proclaimed.   The muses halfheartedly assented: Apollo had officially won the contest.

Apollo flaying Marsyas (Luca Giordano, 17th century, oil on canvas))

Apollo flaying Marsyas (Luca Giordano, 17th century, oil on canvas))

This was the moment Marsyas had planned for.  He was shaking with excitement as Apollo took hold of his unresisting form and shackled him to a tree.   Then Apollo picked up a skinning knife and started flaying the saty’s skin off.  Marsyas screamed and bleated in horror and pain, but Apollo kept cutting and peeling until he had removed the satyr’s entire hide.  Then the lord of music sat and watched while Marsyas bled to death, before hanging up the horrible dripping pelt in the tree and departing.  Vergil avers that the blood of Marsyas stained the river everlastingly red–indeed the waterway was thereafter named the Marsyas.

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Apollo and Marsyas (Bartolomeo Manfredi, ca. 1615-1620, oil on canvas)

The artistic thing to do, would be to leave the story as it stands–to let readers mull the troubling tale on their own. However I have been thinking about it a great deal…Every artist thinks about it a great deal.  Museums are filled with interpretations of the story by history’s greatest painters and sculptors.  There was a version of Apollo and Marsyas painted on the ceiling of the Queen of France (in that version, the skinning is done by underlings as Apollo languidly points out how he wants things done).  Since I have seen plenty of museum-goers blanch when looking at pictures of Marsyas and hastily turn away, I will provide some ready made meta-interpretations to start the conversation.

Apollo and Marsyas from the ceiling of Anne of Austria's summer apartments (Giovanni Francesco Romanelli, ca. mid 17th century, fresco)

Apollo and Marsyas from the ceiling of Anne of Austria’s summer apartments (Giovanni Francesco Romanelli, ca. mid 17th century, fresco)

First, this story is a tale of masters and servants.  The lyre is the instrument of the rich.  It was expensive to own and required tutors to learn.  The aulos was the instrument of shepherds, smallfolk, and slaves.  The tale of exploitation is a very familiar one throughout all of history. It always goes one way: somebody gets fleeced.

The Flaying of Marsyas (Titian, ca.1570-76, oil on canvas)

The Flaying of Marsyas (Titian, ca.1570-76, oil on canvas)

Also this is self-evidently a tale of forbidden sexuality.  It was immensely popular with Renaissance, Baroque, and Victorian artists from the west because of the opressive mores of society.  By presenting this story as a classically varsnished picture, people could represent forbidden ideas about same-gender relationships which society would literally kill them for saying or acting upon.  Indeed the story’s ghastly climax represents exactly that!

Apollo and Marsyas (Giuseppe Cammarano,  19th century, print)

Apollo and Marsyas (Giuseppe Cammarano, 19th century, ink wash)

In a related vein, philosophers and writers interpret the story as “reason chastening lust.”  The former is more powerful than the latter: ultimately the mind subjugates the passions. Perhaps this is why the picture was above the queen’s bed–maybe the king commanded that it be painted there.  Yet the reason of Apollo does not strike me as at all reasonable.  If this is what rationality accomplishes, then reason is monstrous (and it often seems so in the affairs of men). I wish I could sit with Jeremy Bentham and talk about this. Utility and pragmatism oft seem as ruthless as cruel Apollo.

Apollo and Marsyas (Anselmi, 1540, oil on canvas)

Apollo and Marsyas (Anselmi, 1540, oil on canvas)

It is also a tale of artists and their audiences (and their art).  Marsyas does not clearly lose the contest.  His music is as beautiful as that of Apollo–maybe better.  However the game was rigged from the start.  Art is a mountain with infinite facets but the sun of fashion only shines on a few at a time.  The greatest artists are not necessarily appreciated or loved.  I can’t imagine a single artist who painted this story imagined themselves as Apollo. Unless you have personally rigged the game with money and power, it will not benefit you. You must prepare for operatic destruction at the hands of the world.  It is a terrible part of art.  The world’s inability to discern true worth is one of life’s most disappointing aspects.

Marsyas Flayed by the Order of Apollo (Charles André van Loo, 1735, oil on canvas)

Marsyas Flayed by the Order of Apollo (Charles André van Loo, 1735, oil on canvas)

Above all, it is a story of gods and mortals. For daring to step on the field with the divine, mortality is punished with the ultimate penalty–mortality.  I don’t believe in gods or divinity (people who literally believe in such things strike me as dangerous lunatics).  Divinity is a myth–but an important one which informs us concerning humankind’s ultimate purpose and methods.  We have strayed into vasty realms.  I’ll come back to this theme later but for now let’s say that the defeat of Marsyas reveals something.  Would you prefer if he just gave up and groveled before Apollo?  No, there would be no story, no striving, no art. There is a divine seed within his failure–a spark of the celestial fire which animates (or should animate) our lives.

Marsyas Flayed by the Order of Apollo (Charles André van Loo, ca. 1734-1735, oil on canvas)

Marsyas Flayed by the Order of Apollo (Charles André van Loo, ca. 1734-1735, oil on canvas)

Anyway, for putting up with this rather horrible week I have a Halloween treat for you tomorrow.  Remember, I am not just a moral and aesthetic philosopher but a troubled toymaker (and a lost artist) as well.  Happy Halloween!

Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) photo by Robert Seago

Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) photo by Robert Seago

Here is an interesting and horrifying flower!  This is henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) which also goes by the name “stinking nightshade.”  It is one of the noteworthy poisons of classical antiquity.  Henbane is a member of the Solanaceae family—the nightshades—one of the most important of all plant families to humankind.  The Solanaceae family includes eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes, but also nightshade, datura, and tobacco!

Henbane Illustration/diagram

Henbane Illustration/diagram

Henbane too is rich in psychoactive alkaloids.  Small doses result in dilated pupils, restlessness, flushed skin, and hallucinations.  Other symptoms of henbane poisoning include a racing heart, vomiting, extreme body temperature fluctuations, the inability to control one’s muscles, convulsions, coma, and, uh, death, so it’s probably well to steer clear of eating (or touching or taunting) this particular plant.  The ancient Greeks and Romans did not read my blog, so they sometimes ingested henbane.  In particular, Pliny documented its use by fortunetellers. The priestesses of Apollo would take the plant in order that they might fall into a hallucinogenic trance and then pronounce auguries. It should be noted that priestesses of Apollo tended not to last too well.  Henbane also had associations with the world hereafter, and dead souls wandering the margins of the underworld were said to wear henbane laurels.

Two apothecary vessels for storage of Hyoscyamus niger (ca. 19th century) photo by Bullenwächter

Two apothecary vessels for storage of Hyoscyamus niger (ca. 19th century) photo by Bullenwächter

Henbane originated in southern Europe and western Asia, but classical civilization spread it widely across all of Europe (from whence it traveled to the rest of the world). Incompetent medieval pharmacists used it as an anesthetic and for other sundry “medicinal” uses.  It was also popular with poisoners (scholars think it is the most likely candidate to be “hebenon” the poison from Hamlet) and was the means of death for many murders even into contemporary times.  It also has a sad place in the witch panics that affected Europe during the dark ages and the early modern era.  Witches were said to use it in their potions.  Domestic animals would also sometimes eat it accidentally and run wild or perish. Thus witch-hunters would look for the plant and use it as evidence in their trials (although it grows wild as a weed).  Also, because of its powerful psychoactive properties, henbane could well give a user the impression of flying and of various supernatural happenings.

Witches' Sabbath (Hans Baldung Grien, 1510, woodcut)

Witches’ Sabbath (Hans Baldung Grien, 1510, woodcut)

On a more mundane level, brewers used henbane to flavor beer until this was recognized as a bad idea (which occurred much later than you might hope) and it was universally replaced with hops.  Evidence of henbane’s use as a flavoring agent for beer goes all the way back to the Neolithic era.  There is clearly evidence that henbane does something for (to?) humans, but there is even clearer evidence that it is tremendously dangerous and toxic.  Maybe it’s best to appreciate this ancient plant through reading about it and looking at pictures of the strange weedy flowers.

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Ever since recounting the story of Orpheus, I have been thinking about the lyre. The ancient musical instrument even showed up again last week in a post about an amazing new planetary system–and the mythical harp of the gods somehow stole some of the glory from real worlds formed eleven billion years ago. Perhaps this is appropriate: for the myth of the first lyre is a story of theft.

Hermes stealing the cattle of Apollo (5th century Attic vase)

Hermes stealing the cattle of Apollo (5th century Attic vase)

It is also the origin story of Hermes, who was not just the messenger of the gods, but also the god of tradesmen, herdsmen, and thieves. Hermes was the child of Maia, the daughter of a Titan. After the war between Titans and Olympians, she hid herself away in a stygian cave which twisted down beneath Mount Cyllene, but one day, Zeus spied her and they became lovers. Maia’s cave provided the dallying pair with an excellent hiding place from the jealous eyes of Hera, and in due course Hermes was born. Even as a baby, the obstreperous little god, was too clever and mischievous to be hidden away in some cave. Baby Hermes sneaked out and soon found a herd of exquisite white cattle belonging to Apollo. The tiny god picked out the finest of these splendid sky cattle and rustled them off for himself and his mother, but before leading them away, he put brooms on their tails so they would erase their tracks. He also drove them out of their pasture backwards and disguised his own footprints by wearing branches on his feet. Then he took the white cows to a secret grove and sacrificed the two most beautiful beasts, burning everything but the entrails. These gut strings he attached to a turtle shell to play soothing music—the first lyre!

When Hermes got back to his cave, his mother was frantic with worry, but he quickly beguiled her with honeyed words and a sweet lullaby. In the meantime, Apollo had noticed that his best cattle were missing, and he began to hunt the thief… but it was no easy task. First the golden god could not find any tracks, and when he discovered the footprints, they lead back to the paddock (and there was no evidence of any thief). However Apollo was the god of prophecy and hidden truth, so he drew upon his divine augury to discover who had taken his cattle. In fury he rushed into Maia’s cave to grab the culprit, but, even as an infant, Hermes was swift and he outran the angry sun god. Soon the comic chase lead up to Olympus, where a proud Zeus, made the (half) brothers cease their quarrel.

Claude Lorrain (Mercury Returning the Cattle of Admetus to Apollo, chalk drawing)

Claude Lorrain (Mercury Returning the Cattle of Admetus to Apollo, chalk drawing)

Hermes returned the cattle, but two were still missing! Apollo demanded them back, but to no avail: they were burned up. Hermes pulled out his lyre hoping to lull Apollo as he had Maia, but the lovely music had an altogether different effect on the refined art-lover Apollo. As the god of music and beauty, Apollo was indeed beguiled, but he did not fall asleep. Instead he had to have the beautiful instrument! He begged his little brother, and cajoled, and finally offered him all the white cattle. Hermes drove a hard bargain and he also gained Apollo’s magical wand in the deal. This wand was the fabulous and disturbing caduceus—a winged golden rod wrapped by two snakes. It became the symbol of Hermes, and of commerce itself, but, according to myth it had yet deeper powers—to grant sleep, and death, and resurrection. Hermes touched the eyes of the departed with the caduceus and led them on their last journey. He used it to transcend the thresholds of the world and travel everywhere (although in the modern world it has become meddled with the staff of Asclepius).

Mercury exchanging the lyre for the rod with Apollo

Mercury exchanging the lyre for the rod with Apollo

Apollo received the lyre, and it became his defining symbol (along with his golden bow). In fact Apollo’s lyre became the symbol of all art and music–a role which it still holds. It is funny that the defining objects of the two gods were originally vice-versa (though maybe knowing mothers–and knowing merchants–will not find such a swap entirely unprecedented).

1834 drawing of an ancient Roman painting of Apollo and Mercury from Pompei

1834 drawing of an ancient Roman painting of Apollo and Mercury from Pompei

In Greek mythology, Apollo was the god of healing (as well as the god of light, poetry, music, and sundry other good things).  Yet Apollo was surpassed as a healer by his son the demigod Asclepius.  Asclepius should be one of the most exalted figures in classical mythology, yet his story is ambiguous and troubling (which is perhaps a more fitting tribute to the complexity and heartache of the healers’ arts). The mother of Asclepius was a mortal woman, Coronis, who cheated on Apollo with a mortal lover. When a crow reported to Apollo that Coronis was unfaithful, the sun god disbelieved the fowl and he turned all crows from white to black and gave them discordant voices.  Yet the story rankled the god’s heart.  When he investigated the rumor and found it to be true, Apollo killed Coronis with one of his terrible arrows.  As she writhed in death agony, he slit her open to rescue the son she bore (hence Asclepius’ name means “to cut open”).  Apollo then granted crows cleverness beyond other birds to make up for his anger.

The Birth of Asclepius (print)

Like many other demigods, Asclepius was raised and tutored by the centaur Chiron, a matchless teacher.  Soon the pupil surpassed the student and it was rumored that snakes licked Asclepius’ ears and taught him secret knowledge (to the Greeks snakes were sacred beings of wisdom, healing, and resurrection).  Asclepius bore a rod wreathed with a snake, which became associated with healing.  To this day a species of pan-Mediterranean serpent, the Aesculapian Snake (Zamenis longissimus) are named for the demigod.

Asklepios (Marble, c. 160. AD, found at Asklepios sanctuary in Epidaurus. Copy of an original from IV century BC)

Being the greatest healer in the world brought wealth and fame to Asclepius, who had many successful children, each of whom was named after some aspect of the medical craft (Hygiene, Panacea, Recuperation, etc…), but his success became his undoing.  When he left Chiron, the centaur had given him two vials of blood—one from the left side and one from the right side of a gorgon. The blood from the left side was a fatal poison which caused ultimate agony (as Chiron himself experienced firsthand at his anguished destruction).  The blood from the gorgon’s left side was a miraculous elixir which could bring the dead back to life.  Asclepius began to accept gold to revive the dead and he drew the baleful attention of Hades.  Afraid that the decisions of the gods would cease to hold terror for mortal kind, Hades begged his brother to make a final end of Asclepius.  Zeus was in full agreement and he burned Asclepius to a cinder by casting a lightning bolt at him.

Asclepius Reviving Hippolytus (Claude Lorrain, 17th century, pen & ink, wash and chalk on paper)

Apollo was furious at the death of his son (and the extinction of the apex of medical art).  Not daring to strike Zeus, Apollo killed the Cyclops who has fashioned the lightning bolt, an act which led Zeus to banish Apollo to the mortal realm for a year (during which time the god designed the walls of Troy). When his term was served, Apollo joyously rejoined the other Olympians.  Different traditions interpret the story’s end differently.  In happier versions, Zeus and Hades bring Asclepius’ spirit to Olympus to act as god of healing forever.  In other versions Apollo and Zeus hang the image of Asclepius in the heavens as the constellation Opiuchus, “the Snake Bearer” both to remind humankind of the physician’s greatness and to warn them to eschew seeking immortality.

Apollo and Python (J.M.W. Turner, 1811, oil on canvas)

The giant Burmese pythons invading South Florida are back in the news.  We have examined the disturbing progress of these tropical apex predators in a previous post.  Unfortunately the stiff winter of 2010 was not enough to slow their relentless progress.  It is now reported that the renegade serpents have caused mammal populations throughout the everglades to crash.  This upsetting news article indicates that populations of raccoons, opossums, and white-tailed deer are down by more than 90%.  Researchers couldn’t find any rabbits or foxes at all.  Native, domestic, and invasive birds have also been hit hard by the snakes.  Not only are the pythons excellent predators in land, water, or trees, but mammals and birds have lost their evolved response to giant snakes (the last native boa constrictors went extinct 16 million years ago).

Humankind is ingenuous at killing things when there is an incentive to do so.  Perhaps the fashion industry could revive python skin (in an environmentally sensitive way that did not involve slaughtering endangered snakes overseas).  Or we could take a cue from the sun god Apollo and just go on an infuriated killing rampage. The ancient Greeks admired and venerated snakes in a way which we do not, but one of the main myths about Apollo involves the story of how he killed a giant underworld python and remade the creature’s lair into the locus of sun worship and prophecy in the ancient world.

Apollo Slaying Python (Eugene Delecroix, 1851, ceiling)

Zeus dallied with the goddess Leto who became pregnant with twins.  Vengeful Hera could not directly punish Zeus, but she took out her wrath on Leto by sending a monstrous python to hound the expectant goddess from all terra firma (and from anywhere the sun shone).  Finally Leto found refuge on Delos, a floating island which Zeus covered with clouds. She gave birth to twins: Artemis, (Diana in Roman) the virgin goddess of the hunt; and Apollo, sun god and deity of beauty, prophecy, and enlightened art. Apollo represented the apex of classical beauty and virtue at a time when martial skill and revenge were paramount virtues.  As soon as he grew to manhood he took his divine golden arrows and hunted for the python which had tormented his mother.  He hunted the underworld monster to Delphi where the python lived wrapped around the Omphalos, the navel of the earth.  In single combat he shot an arrow of divine agony into the creature’s throat, causing the snake to die at the center of the world in terrible pain.

The python was sacred, the offspring of mother Earth herself.  Even for an Olympian god such a deicide was a tremendous sin.  Zeus decreed that Apollo must serve eight years of menial service as a slave to atone for killing the Python.  After this period was over, Apollo rededicated the Python’s oracular shrine to himself as the foremost center of augury in the ancient world.  A yearly Greek holiday Septerla was established to commemorate the god’s triumph over the chthonic snake and every four years the Pythian Games were held at Delphi.  The Pthian games were second only to the Olympics in fame and prestige.

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