Art Spotlight: The Flaying of Marsyas

Art Spotlight: The Flaying of Marsyas
'The Flaying of Marsyas' Wikimedia Commons

Our podcast episode "Incomplete/Unfinished" explores the nature of unfinished or incomplete works of literature, art, music and the human experience. In discussing intentionally-unfinished or non finito works of art, Joe and I discuss a number of captivating paintings. Many of the examples are currently featured over at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Unfinished website, but I wanted to cast the Art Spotlight on one work in particular here.

Another depiction: 'Marsyas and Apollo' (1650) by Luca Giordano
Heritage Images/Getty

Behold 'The Flaying of Marsyas' (AKA 'The Punishment of Marsyas') by 16th-century Venetian master Titian. The artists' last officially finished painting (circa 1570), depicts the grisly end of Marsyas. The prideful silenus (a sort of equine satyr companion of Dionysus) made the mistake of challenging the god Apollo to a musical contest.

The chosen instrument? The aulos.

The stakes? Victor chooses the loser's fate.

So it's essentially "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" but with far more at stake than a golden violin. You don't have to be a classical scholar to know what vicious jerks the gods can be. The muses judged Apollo the winner, so the god of music had his challenger skinned alive. Friends don't let friends challenge the gods to spiteful contests. Just ask Arachne.

It's a popular artistic subject (even Anish Kapoor took a stab at it), but Titian's treatment of the scene is especially haunting given the intentional incompleteness of the work. As with some of the artists other atrocity paintings, the grisly details are not forthcoming -- as if the human mind can't quite take in all the bloodthirsty awfulness of the scene.