Greek Hellenistic Sculpture

Hanging Marsyas/Scythian Knife-grinder

art_hellenistic236Roman copies of Greek originals
Ca. 200-150 BCE

The scene depicted in what has become known as the Hanging Marsyas group is the climax of a story which had roots in Greek myth and art at least as early as the fifth century BCE. The satyr Marsyas was so delighted with the sounds of Athena playing the flutes that he defied her warning to leave them undisturbed after she discarded them since they had distorted their features when she played them. Retrieving the pipes, Marsyas taught himself to play and, intoxicated by the wonderful sounds, he foolishly challenged Apollo to a musical contest which, predictably, the god won. Apollo then decreed that Marsyas be flayed alive as punishment for defying the gods; the Hanging Marsyas group depicts the last moments before that awful punishment is to be carried out.

art_hellenistic237A sculptor in Pergamon, working around the end of the third century, portrays the penultimate scene of the drama: Marsyas bound and helpless as the torturer's knife is readied for its gory task. His back pressed against a tree, Marsyas hangs ‌by his bound wrists which are pulled over his head and tied to a branch. With his arms pulling upwards on his torso, the rib cage is expanded and the skin is pulled taut over his ribs and musculature. The Scythian crouches below, sharpening a large, curved blade on a whetstone; his blunt fingers carry out their practiced motion automatically, unattended by his gaze which is lifted toward the stretched vulnerability of his victim. As reconstructed from fragmentary evidence, Apollo would have sat nearby, serenely observing the Scythian's grim preparations.

The deeply plastic modeling of the Scythian's features is underscored by an unrelenting realism in depicting the heavy coarseness of his thickened body, receding forehead, and tufts of facial hair. This "baroque" expression of brute force is channeled through the knife-grinder's stare towards the frame of the satyr. The very fact that he is bound emphasizes his impending fate. The satyr is a creature of dance, of unrestrained movement; to be strung immobile must have been a terrible cruelty in itself. The combination of these characteristics of realism, pathos, dramatic tension, and classicism is consistent with known trends in Pergamene sculpture during the first half of the 2nd century BCE.

Dale Skaggs

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