RIBERA, Jusepe de
(b. 1591, Játiva, d. 1652, Napoli)
Apollo Flaying Marsyas1637
Oil on canvas, 202 x 255 cm
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels
"Oh, what is my repentance ! Oh, a flute is not worth all that ! Despite his cries, his skin is torn off his whole body; (..) his naked muscles become visible; a convulsive movement trembles the veins, lacking their covering of skin." (Ovid: Metamorphoses, Book VI, verses 386-390). This is how Apollo punishes Marsyas, the satyr who dared to question the superiority of the melody of the divine lyre over the worldly sensuality of his flute.
This masterpiece by Jusepe de Ribera was painted in 1637, when his style had reached maturity. The passage from Ovid's Metamorphoses depicted here is the fruit of the aesthetic atmosphere that prevailed at Naples, considered the capital of painting of the time. It is in this context that the painter highlights the confrontation between the divine and the earthly, with the form of representation underlining the content. From his Caravaggesque beginnings, Rivera preserved the expressiveness and the modelling provided by chiaroscuro. But the contrasts characterising this manifestation of Neapolitan Baroque are no longer limited to the clashes of light. De Ribera goes further, achieving a sense of the tragic through every item in the canvas. Like Caravaggio, he made use of popular sources and of real life situations in order to represent the expression of faith. In this way his paintings of figures who, like Marsyas, could have come from the alleyways of Naples, had already achieved renown right across Europe.
The figure of the god is marked by the classicism which was then in fashion in Naples. His anatomical perfection, his youth and his idealised beauty are surrounded by flowing, airy draperies which accentuate the diagonal thrust of the composition. In the spirit of the baroque, the roughness of Marsyas' body and the shape of the tree contrast with this classicism. As in his famous depictions of martyrs, Ribera places the victim foreshortened in the foreground. The structure is balanced by a group of forest inhabitants who watch on powerless as the god bears down on his victim.