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Olympic Vagaries - The Myth of Athena, Marsyas, and Apollo
Marsyassarkophag. Photo: bpk/RMN/Musée du Louvre/ Réne-Gabriel Objéda.

FRANKFURT.- After several months of conversion work, the Liebieghaus Collection of Antiques reopened. The exhibition “Olympic Vagaries. The Myth of Athena, Marsyas, and Apollo” accompanying the occasion assembles 70 high-caliber sculptures, vases, pictures, and written sources that elucidate the talented silenos Marsyas’ fate who became a bloody victim of the radiant Greek god Apollo’s envy and cruelty. An expert player on the aulos, a flute invented by the goddess Athena, Marsyas enraged Apollo, who challenged him to a contest and finally had him flayed alive. The famous Greek sculptor Myron’s statue of Athena provides the starting-point of the exhibition. Passed on to us as a Roman copy from the first century AD, it numbers among the most important masterworks of ancient art and represents one of the best-known sculptures of the Collection of Antiques in the Liebieghaus. Already world-famous in ancient times, the statue of the goddess was originally to be found on the Acropolis in Athens, forming a group with the silenos Marsyas. The equally Roman sculpture of Marsyas could be included in the show as a loan from the Vatican Museums and will now, together with the Frankfurt Athena, revive Myron’s legendary group for the first time.

The exhibition “Olympic Vagaries. The Myth of Athena, Marsyas, and Apollo” is sponsored by Techem AG, Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung, Taurus Investment Holdings, LLP, and Hessische Kulturstiftung.

The Myth - The invention of the aulos, a double-piped staghorn or reed flute, is preceded by one of the greatest sagas of Greek mythology: the beheading of the gorgon Medusa. When faced with her death, her two sisters Stheno and Euryale broke out into supernatural lamentations. Wanting to imitate their dirge, Athena invented the aulos. The artistic goddess indeed succeeded in charming melodies of undreamt-of beauty out of the wind instrument. One day, however, she discovered in the mirror-smooth surface of some standing water that playing the flute disfigured her face. Full of anger, she tossed it aside. The silenos Marsyas, who, half man and half goat, lived in nature and roamed Phrygia accompanying the raging and drum-beating Cybele, was destined to find the instrument Athena had thrown away. He developed a great talent and became a virtuoso player. Marsyas could not hide his extraordinary gift from Apollo, the god of music, who felt provoked by this outstanding feat that questioned his divine position. The ensuing contest was judged by the Muses. Obviously, no clear decision could be brought about in the first round of this musical competition. This is why Apollo saw himself forced to change the rules during the contest − an unheard-of procedure which may not only appear as an arbitrary vagary from today’s point of view. According to a common strand of tradition, he accomplished a cunning change of the rules: the victory should go to the musician who could also play his instrument turned upside down. This was not difficult for Apollo on his cithara but technically impossible in the case of the flute. Another version has it that Apollo had to acknowledge Marsyas’ godlike interpretation on his instrument, but insisted on an additional test: victory should only be gained by the contestant who could accompany his playing with his song. Naturally, only Apollo was able to fulfill this requirement. The certainly relieved Muses assigned to him could then come to an unequivocal decision for the god. Before the start of the contest, the participants had agreed that the winner might deal with the loser as he fancied. What happened now reveals which extreme cruelty Apollo was capable of. He had the tragic loser tied to a pine tree and ordered a Scythe − the inhuman act was to be executed by somebody who was not Greek obviously − to grind his knife and flay Marsyas alive. The satyr’s blood flowed onto the ground and formed the tributary of the Maeander of Asia Minor called Marsyas. A less dramatic, but even more tragic interpretation is to be found in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” where the tears shed by the creatures of the woods, the fauns, satyrs, and nymphs bewailing the loss of their “brother,” form the “mighty stream” that “comes tumbling to the sea.”

The Exhibition - The myth of Marsyas in its different episodes has been taken up as a subject by ancient artists in manifold ways. The exhibition outlines the myth’s various interpretations and steps of narration: the beheading of the gorgon Medusa by Perseus, the invention of the aulos and Athena’s flute-playing, the contest between Apollo and Marsyas, and the flaying of Marsyas. The magnificent Marsyas sarcophagus from the Louvre in Paris grants an impressive introduction to the subject: it illustrates the essential phases of the myth in several sequences. The Athena-Marsyas group by the Greek sculptor Myron constitutes a special highlight. As one of the most inventive artists of his day, Myron arrived at a new interpretation of a figure’s movement in space around the middle of the fifth century BC. The Athena-Marsyas group is one of the most striking examples of this development. Originally made of bronze and to be found on the Acropolis in Athens, the group presents two elements of the myth from different points in time: by showing Athena’s gaze still fixed on the cursed instrument for a moment and depicting Marsyas as he just lays eyes on the flute for the first time, almost treads on it, shrinks back, and tries to keep his balance with arms flailing, these sequences are sophistically connected by means of formal aspects of the composition. This tension can be experienced again in the exhibition thanks to the reunion of the statue of Athena from the Liebieghaus and the sculpture of Marsyas from the Vatican Museums.

Besides important loans from Athens, Rome, Naples, London, Paris, Berlin, Dresden, and Munich, the rich holdings of the Liebieghaus will also be brought together to form theater-like ensembles. These will convey a sumptuous image of the Dionysian world which the silenos Marsyas originated from and reveal the character of sileni and satyrs as informed by a combination of natural forces, rapture, and creativity. On the other hand, the Apollonian manifests itself in, among other works, an original Greek sculptural group from the Liebieghaus Collection that represents the Muses − i.e. the jury in the musical contest between Apollo and Marsyas. In modern Western cultures, Apollo is seen as the god of light, of clear thinking: of reason. The exhibition revises this one-sided view and presents the god’s dark sides, especially his merciless vengeance, side by side with his “bright” aspects.

The flaying of Marsyas forms the cruel climax of the myth. The famous Hellenistic group of the flayer and the hanging Marsyas will be reconstructed for the exhibition in Frankfurt and presented in the Tempietto of the Liebieghaus. This group − supreme accomplishment of ancient narrative art in the context of violence − finds itself as a motif on the famous Medicean cameo preserved in Naples today. It is exactly this cameo that is worn by a beautiful idealized woman in one of Botticelli’s most famous pictures. This painting, which is in possession of the Städel Museum, will be shown next to the cameo from Naples, confronting the model and Botticelli’s representation for the first time. The Hellenistic group focuses on the preparations immediately preceding the flaying, introducing the viewer to the act in detail. Though Marsyas has already been tied to the tree and the flayer is grinding his knife, the silenos’ body is still unhurt. Only European post-ancient art dared make the last step and show the flaying itself. Ancient aesthetics still shrank back from this kind of cruelty. Titian’s great painting, directly visualizing the flaying of Marsyas, provides the dramatic highlight with which the exhibition ends.

Curator: Prof. Dr. Vinzenz Brinkmann, Head of the Collection of Antiques. Exhibition architecture: Kühn Malvezzi Architekten, Berlin. Catalogue: “Launen des Olymp. Der Mythos von Athena, Marsyas und Apoll“. Edited by Vinzenz Brinkmann. With essays by Vinzenz Brinkmann, Jochen Sander, Gabriele Kaminski, Susanne Muth, Stefan Hagel, Egert Pöhlmann, and Clemens Schmidlin, German, 184 pages, 106 ill., Michael Imhof Verlag, 2008, ISBN 978-3-86568-373-1, 22 Euro.

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