Narrative and Composition Analysis

Bust of Marsyas

Balthasar Permoser's Bust of Marsyas 1680-1685 CE

In Greek and Roman mythology, the satyr Marsyas challenged the god Apollo to a music competition to be judged by the Muses. (1)The goddess Athena had created a flute but thrown it away; Marsyas found it and had become so skilled with it that he thought he was more skilled than a god. (2) Apollo accepted the challenge and played the lyre. The contest stipulated that the winner could do whatever he wanted to do with the loser. (3)

            Initially, Apollo and Marsyas were evenly matched in the contest, but then Apollo played his lyre backwards, something Marsyas could not do with his flute. (4) Thus Marsyas lost the contest, and Apollo chose to flay him alive. Apollo tied Marsyas to a tree and flayed him; Marsyas’ blood, or the tears of his fellow satyrs and woodland companions, formed the river Marsyas. (5) During his torture Marsyas expressed his regret: “Aah! I repent […]Aah! Music is not worth this pain!” (6)

            The story illustrates the consequences of a mortal attempting to best a god. Apollo unmercifully punished Marsyas’ pride despite winning the contest through ingenuity rather than musical ability. Marsyas’ bound, skinned corpse served as a warning to those who might think they could  challenge a god; in the end, the gods will triumph.

            Balthasar Permoser’s Bust of Marsyas distills the narrative of Marsyas and Apollo’s musical competition into one moment: the flaying of Marsyas. Marsyas’ feelings during the flaying represent the moral of the story and the price one pays after challenging the gods. Permoser further concentrates the narrative by sculpting only Marsyas’ head. He channels all of Marsyas’ emotions of anguish, defeat, and despair into the bust. Permoser does not include the gore of the flaying or other characters, which would distract from the raw emotion he conveys through Marsyas’ expression. 

Apollo, Marsyas, and the Judgment of Midas

Melchior Meier's Apollo, Marsyas, and the Judgment of Midas 1582 CE

 Without knowing the story of Marsyas, his specific punishment is not evident. His face conveys severe pain, but does not exhibit any physical signs of maltreatment, thus leaving the punishment to the imagination. Permoser relies on an understanding of the narrative on the part of the viewer which allows him to omit extraneous details and focus on a singular, concentrated element of the narrative which conveys the whole. In contrast, a cursory understanding of Greek mythology will suffice to understand Melchior Meier’s 1582 Apollo, Marsyas, and the Judgment of Midas or Jusepe de Ribera’s 1637 Apollo Flaying MarsyasBoth pieces depict the flaying of Marsyas, but do so with the inclusion of other characters, notably Apollo, and a woodland background. These pieces give Marsyas’ punishment context in a way that Peromoser’s bust does not. This comes, however, at the cost of diverting attention away to other aspects of the pieces from the pivotal moment: Marsyas’ punishment.

            Marsyas’ curly, animated hair, the visible tendons in his angled neck and his open, screaming mouth convey a sense of energy and struggle in Permoser's bust. These elements combine to show the feeling of the moment and an understanding of Marsyas’ experience. From the instance captured in sculpture, the events leading up to and following it can be extrapolated with the story in mind. Rather than attempt to convey the whole narrative, Permoser captures its climax.

            Permoser’s bust communicates the narrative differently than Meier or Ribera’s work due to the three-dimensionality of the medium. Marsyas takes up space; passing to the side of one of the two-dimensional pieces ends its viewing, but a walk around Permoser’s bust only lends to the experience. Different angles highlight Marsyas’ struggle against his inevitable punishment and death; the bust brings the narrative into the real world in a way that two-dimensional representations cannot. Viewing the work from different angles adds to its understanding, a dimension that painting lacks.

            The lack of setting, costume, or other figures lends the bust a sense of timelessness. There is no clothing or background to date it; only an ageless expression that is relatable regardless of time period. Both Meier Ribera’s works convey the narrative more fully by depicting Apollo flaying Marsyas in front of other characters, but at the expense of drawing attention away from Marsyas. The bust’s concentration on the emotion of the moment is the only object of focus, whereas the two other works draw attention to other characters. The other works put Marsyas in a particular classical moment, whereas Permoser’s bust is not tied to any particular time period.


Apollo Flaying Marsyas

Jusepe de Ribera's Apollo Flaying Marsyas 1637

 By choosing to represent only Marsyas’ bust, Permoser does not take liberties with the narrative itself; instead, he manipulates it by choosing one aspect of the narrative, Marsyas’ bust during the flaying, to represent the narrative as a whole. Meier and Ribera’s works convey a sense of the narrative in its entirety by representing other characters and background. This gives context to the work, but changes its message. Other characters' points of view are apparent in the other works, but Permoser's bust makes Marsyas' punishment the central, representative event in the narrative, rather than focusing on Apollo or other aspects of the narrative. The message of Meier and Ribera’s works are tied closely to the message of the narrative, but by singling out a facet of the narrative Permoser only conveys the experience of one character.

            Recognition of the bust as a representation of Marsyas relies on a conception of the face of the satyr. A man's face with horse-like features is the classical image of a satyr. Unless the bust was included in a collection of mythological pieces, Permoser had to rely on a familiarity of Marsyas’ likeness on the part of the audience, or else some accompanying explanatory text.

            The bust is life-sized and detailed, lending itself to a close viewing. The intricately carved hair and nuanced facial expression lend themselves to close examination. The unpainted white marble has no decorations to distract from the emotion of the work, in keeping with the other aspects of the piece that lead focus to the facial expression. The bust functions as a display piece that can withstand close scrutiny from the front and sides, although the lower back of the bust remains unfinished; this detail suggests that the bust may have been mounted against a wall.

1. "Marsyas." Grant, M. & Hazel, J. Who's Who in Classical Mythology. 2002.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ovid. Metamorphoses. VI 382-400.


Marsyas. (2002). M. Grant & J. Hazel, Who's who in classical mythology, Routledge. London, United Kingdom: Routledge. 

"Marsyas". The Classical Tradition, edited by Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most, and Salvatore Settis. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Ovid. Metamorphoses. Translated by A. S. Kline. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2000.