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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.

bartolomeo_manfredi_-_apollo_and_marsyas

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!

The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew (Jusepe de Ribera,  1634, oil on canvas)

The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew (Jusepe de Ribera, 1634, oil on canvas)

Saint Bartholomew was one of the twelve apostles of Christ… Yet, considering the exalted company he kept, we do not know very much about Bartholomew.  Bartholomew means “son of the furrows” in Aramaic, which suggests he was possiblya ploughman…or at least descended from farmers (it is also funny to think that Bart Simpson’s name is originally Aramaic).  Bartholomew shows up by name in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (the “Synoptic” gospels, which give roughly the same account of events) but he is replaced by Nathaniel in the enigmaticand iconoclastic gospel of John.

 martyrdom-of-st-bartholomew-934-mid[1]

Whatever the case, sources (such as they are) place Bartholomew at the Ascension–the Greek-myth style apotheosis of Christ, when the risen savior ascended bodily into heaven to assimilate with the divine.  Bartholomew’s story gets a lot more interesting thereafter.  While other apostles went west and north to spread Christianity to the Roman Empire, Bartholomew headed East, right out of the boundaries of the known world. Along with Saint Thomas, he is credited with bringing Christianity to India.  Along the way he is alleged (by varying sources) to have stopped to spread the faith in Mesopotamia, Parthia, and Lycaonia.

Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew (Stefan Lochner, 1435)

Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew (Stefan Lochner, 1435)

However Bartholomew is most affiliated with Armenian Christianity.  Along with his fellow apostle, Saint Jude, he is credited with bringing the faith to Armenia in the 1st Century and the two are the Co-founders of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Armenia was also the site of his thrilling martyrdom.  According to popular tradition,Bartholomew converted Polymius, the king of Armenia, to Christianity. This infuritated the king’s brother Astyages, a devout pagan who thought that getting rid of the proslytizer would get rid of the faith.  Astyages had Bartholomew seized, crucified and flayed alive–which seems like overkill.  In some accounts the holy man was drowned or beheaded (maybe Astyages feared a Rasputin type situation and had Bartholomew crucified, flayed, drowned, and beheaded).  Armenia is not necessarily the center of the world in contemporary times, but it was a thriving society in the early medieval world.  There were huge cities filled with great cathedrals to Saint Bartholomew   Whatever the case of the real Bartholomew, popular imagination seized on the flaying aspect of this tale.  This death of Saint Bartholomew became favorite theme of artists  Michaelangelo even painted himself as Saint Bartholomew’s nightmarish skin in the last judgement.  There he is between heaven and hell in the saint’s flayed hand.  Will he be cast down and discarded of ascend as a saint?

Detail from "The Last Judgment" (Michelangelo Buonarotti, ca. 1535-1541, fresco)

Detail from “The Last Judgment” (Michelangelo Buonarotti, ca. 1535-1541, fresco)

Some scolars have noted a deliberate similarity between Bartholomew and the Greco-Roman demigod Hercules. Churches to the saint were often located on former sites of cult centers to the strongman. Additionally the two shared iconongraphy: Bartholomew frequently holds of wears his skin like Hercules wears the Nemean lion’s skin. There are even certainly weird parallels between the figures. Hercules transcended death through physical strength: excellence at fighting and a divine pedigree allowed him to rise to heaven.  Saint Bartholomew a normal man–a farmer–transcended mortality by spiritual strength–he shrugged off the most terrible death possible and joined Jesus in heaven (and in working miracles here on Earth).  Barthomew and Hercules even shared a doom caused throught the skin.  Barthomew was flayed, while Hercules was poisoned intracutaneously and ripped his own skin off.  It is a good theory, but it overlooks the even more straightforward Christian message of Bartholomew. He transcended his mortality through his association with Jesus. He shrugged off his human flesh and became part of the divine.  The raw power of the tale is instantly recognizable in the beautiful & horrible art.

Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew (unknown artist, 17th century, oil on canvas)

Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew (unknown artist, 17th century, oil on canvas)

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.

flaying-alive_1078

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)

surface_area_largeToday features a short but vivid post borrowed from the futurist/science fiction/space blog io9 (which in turn took it from XKCD). Above is a map of all the surfaces of the solar system’s planets and moons flattened out and stitched together. The map was created by Randall Munroe and it does a superb job of explaining the relative size of rocky objects in the solar system. For obvious reasons the gas giants (and the sun!) have been excluded, but so too have small rocks and dust. For fun (um, I hope), the mapmaker also included an area equivalent to all human skin–which, distressingly, seems to be about the size of Hainan.

Russian concept art for a cloud colony in the upper atmosphere of Venus, (proposed in 1970s)

Russian concept art for a cloud colony in the upper atmosphere of Venus, (proposed in 1970s)

This map also emphasizes my most ardent fantasy of solar system colonization: I don’t really want to set up shop on Umbiel or Ceres, but I have a long-lasting interest in colonizing Venus. Sadly most of the rest of humankind is having trouble grasping this concept (possibly because the surface of Venus is a molten hellscape featuring boiling lead, sulfuric acid rain, and crushing pressure).  Remember though, we don’t need to ever go down to the Venutian surface: we can hang around in floating bouncy castles drifting through the balmy spring at the top of the atmosphere. Imagine taking your family zeppelin out for a night on the floating town! All of the people who express such an unwholesome interest in cold resource-poor Mars should pause to reexamine its relative area on Mr. Munroe’s excellent map!

Mars, Earth, Venus

Left to right: Mars, Earth, Venus

(Picture: AFP/Getty Images)

(Picture: AFP/Getty Images)

Every day, major news outlets pick up a few trivial “offbeat” stories in order to pad out the international mayhem, barely concealed commercials, punditry, and celebrity gossip which constitutes the news. One such puff-piece in the news today features the story of a spa in Tokyo which is offering snail facials.  Apparently credulous yet affluent Japanese women can pay to have snails crawl on their face for approximately an hour. The snails are fed on organic carrots and greens so that their mucous–and whatever else passes out of them–will be, well, organic.

There is a rationale behind this wacky beauty regime.  Snail slime contains hyaluronans (aka hyaluronic acids), long unbranched polysaccharides found in animal tissues which promote healing and flexibility.  Hyaluronans have been found to play a major role in wound healing and it is a major component of cartilage and skin (they are also implicated in the prevention of cancer—and malfunction of hyaluronan-producing cells is likewise implicated in cancerous mutagenesis).  Cash-seeking dermatologists have long used hyaluronan as a “filler” to inject into skin to minimize the appearance of wrinkles and as a relatively inert ingredient in their creams and unguents, however recently hyaluronans made the news in an even bigger way with a fascinating, albeit erudite article about the longevity of naked mole rats.  You can read the actual research abstract here, but ABC News more concisely summarizes the possible implications of the research by writing, “Last month, researchers at the University of Rochester wrote that naked mole rats’ super-long hyaluronan molecule actually tells cells to stop reproducing, which is why they think naked mole rats don’t get cancer.”

Heterocephalus glaber: The naked mole-rat

Heterocephalus glaber: The naked mole-rat

Unfortunately, whatever actual importance hyaluronans have in the human body (and whatever importance super long hyaluronans have for the doughty naked mole rat), it does not seem that being coated in snail mucous necessarily has much benefit.  Dermatologists aver that, as the snail slime (which may be of dubious benefit anyway) simply lies on top of the dead waterproof dermis, it cannot have much if any magic mole-rat age-reducing effect.  That still doesn’t deter desperate people who let gastropods crawl all over their face in a quest for eternal youth.

In Greek mythology, King Oeneus of Calydon was one of the great mortal heroes of his day.  Just as Demeter had taught Triptolemus the secrets of growing grain, Dionysus himself taught Oeneus the secrets of unsurpassed winemaking. The merry monarch brought grape culture and the vintner’s arts to all of Aetolia and he grew rich and beloved because of his teaching and his greatness at making wine.  To this day “oenophiles” are people who love wine.

Oeneus with coat and sceptre, Attic white-ground lekythos, ca. 500 BC

The monarch was even luckier in his family.  He was married to Althea, a granddaughter of the gods who was said to be nearly as beautiful as her sister Leda, who drew the eye of Zeus himself.  He had many sons and daughters:  Deianeira (who wed Heracles), Meleager, Toxeus, Clymenus, Periphas, Agelaus, Thyreus (or Phereus or Pheres), Gorge, Eurymede, Mothone, Perimede and Melanippe.  But of all these Oeneus’ eldest son Meleager stood out as the greatest hero of his era—a peerless spearman and warrior.

Meleager had nearly died in infancy.  His mother Althea was spinning flax when she heard the three fates—the ancient and alien goddesses of all destiny– discussing the baby boy.  Old Atropos had pulled out her scissors and was saying that as soon as the brand burning in the fireplace was consumed, the child’s life would end.  Althea threw away her weaving and grabbed the blazing log out of fire.  She smothered the blaze and hid the log away in a huge locked coffer.  Thus Meleager grew into magnificent manhood.

King Oeneus loved the gods and he sacrificed generously to them, but he loved his wine and he drank generously too. One year as he sacrificed to the Olympians he forgot to sacrifice to Artemis, the goddess of the hunt (who was not foremost on his mind anyway since he was a farmer and a wine maker).  Alas, it was a terrible error.  In her wrath the virgin huntress summoned the Calydonian boar, a descendant of the Crommyonian sow (which in turn was descended from Echidna herself).  The immense boar ravaged the countryside.  His tusks were huge like trees but sharp like razors and he impaled scores of Calydonian farmers along with their wives and children.  He tore up the fields and ate the grape vines.  The Corynthians huddled in their walled city and began to starve to death.

Oeneus sent Meleager out to gather the greatest heroes of the era for an epoch hunt and the spearman returned with the foremost fighting men of Greece.  He also returned with a woman, the virgin Atalanta, who was beloved of Artemis and had been raised by she-bears.  Atalanta could run faster and shoot better than any of her male peers.  Her strength and beauty did not go unnoticed by Meleager, who began to pay court to her.

Calydonian Boar Hunt (Peter Paul Rubens, ca.1611, oil on canvas)

The hunt for the Calydonian boar was terrifying and bloody.  Many heroes died under the creature’s iron hooves or upon its evil tusks.  However, at last Atalanta shot a perfect arrow into a vulnerable spot in its bronze-like hide.  Meleager followed up on the advantage and slew the great pig with his spear.  Later, at the drunken feast, he presented the creature’s hide to Atalanta and he was on the verge of begging for her hand when his uncle and brother started a quarrel.

Meleager and the Calydonian Boar. Marble, Roman copy from the Imperial Era (ca. 150 AD) after a Greek original from the 4th century BC.

Arrogant and drunken, Meleager’s kinmen asserted that no virtuous woman would be hunting with men and that the shot was lucky anyway.  Since everyone was drinking heavily of Oeneus’ fine wine (and since the guests were heavily armed) the quarrel flew out of control and, in the subsequent melee, Meleager slew both his own brother and his mother’s brother.  In fury Althea rushed to her chambers and ripped the charred wood from its coffer.  She ran back to the roaring bonfire where all the hunters and revelers were still stunned and hurled the brand into the fire where it was burned away in a moment leaving Meleander dead.

Thus was Artemis avenged on King Wine Man for slighting her in worship.

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