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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?

A Flayed man holding his own skin (Gaspar Becerra, 1556, Etching)

A Flayed man holding his own skin (Gaspar Becerra, 1556, Etching)

It’s Halloween week already: the time when the spirit realm comes closest to the mortal world (well, according to ancient lore, anyway).   This is always a “theme week”, which Ferrebeekeeper devotes to a single topic which is sinister, magical, disquieting, and macabre.  In past year’s we have taken on dark subjects like the children of Echidna, the Flowers of the Underworld, the undead, and the realm of nightmares, but this year we are going back to the roots of civilization to examine an ancient horror.  Sadly, this ghastly topic is not a dark myth or an accursed dream, but an all-too real invention of human savagery.

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Flaying is a method of torture and execution, which was used in ancient times (and not-so-ancient times) to kill a person in the most terrible and painful way.  Of course hunters and animal farmers are familiar with flaying as stripping the skin off of a dead animal so that the hide can be cured as a pelt or a leather, and so that the animal’s meat can then be butchered for consumption (although this is more commonly known as “skinning” in English).  This is done with a knife or similar sharpened implement and farmers/hunters/chefs generally try to keep the hide as intact as possible. At some point in the depths of prehistory, some evil person first realized the same method could be used to cut the skin off of a living person.   Skinning more than a portion of a person is fatal.  Wikipedia blandly cites Ernst G. Jung, a famed dermatologist, writing:  “Dermatologist Ernst G. Jung notes that the typical causes of death due to flaying are shock, critical loss of blood or other body fluids, hypothermia, or infections, and that the actual death is estimated to occur from a few hours up to a few days after the flaying.”  How did Jung know that?  We want to know and yet clearly we also do not want to know. I found a lot of arguments online about whether modern medicine could rescue a flayed person.  I will summarize the upshot of lots of nightmarish dumbassery as “maybe… in perfect circumstances, but probably not.”

lelli-collection

At this point, if you are like me you are probably saying “GLAAARGH! What the hell? Why would anybody ever do such a thing? And why write about it? Why should I even think about such monstrous savagery? I am going to go look at pictures of cute little songbirds.”  That is a good point and those questions/sentiments are very pertinent, but you should not go to the cute animal site yet.

Here is a cute little bird to break the tension.

Here is a cute little bird to break the tension.

Flaying keeps cropping back up in human history, art, and myth.  It reveals something about us in a dark tale which stretches across millennia.  Mostly, of course, it reveals that we are very tragic and cruel animals, but that is a truth well worth remembering (assuming you can somehow not see it within the daily news).  Flaying also reveals some of our stagecraft for manipulating and controlling each other–which I will get into tomorrow with the story of the Neo-Assyrians.  Additionally there is a mysterious and otherworldly hint of true transformation within this topic—a suggestion of the butterfly, the cocoon, and true transcendence from the body—although admittedly this miracle which did not quite come off properly. We will get to this as we look at flaying in art and religion.

High Fashion by Jean Paul Gautier

High Fashion by Jean Paul Gautier

If you can stay with me, this week ends with a fun surprise on Halloween (which I have been working on for a long time and saving for you)…but there is some pretty dark territory to get through before then.  Gird up your loins (no seriously, you may want to tie something protective around your flesh), tomorrow we are going back to the age of chariots and horror to spend some time with the neo-Assyrians.  Aaaagh!

l'Écorché

l’Écorché “The Flayed Man” ( Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1767, cast)

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