How to Be Worthy of Being Human: A Look at 2 Paintings

Reaching Within: What traditional art offers the heart
April 4, 2021 Updated: April 4, 2021

Many stories in Western culture warn of the woes that come from challenging the divine. Today, we will investigate two paintings that illustrate one of these stories: “Apollo as Victor Over Pan” by Jacob Jordaens, and “Apollo and Marsyas” by Bartolomeo Manfredi.

The Musical Contest Between Apollo and Pan (Marsyas)

As the ancient Greek story goes, Athena was playing the flute until she saw her reflection in a body of water. Playing the flute distorted her beauty so much that she threw the flute away in disgust.

The satyr Pan (also known as Marsyas) found the flute and blew into it. Since it once belonged to a goddess, the flute effortlessly made beautiful sounds. Marsyas believed it was his own talent that produced the beautiful music, and he soon challenged Apollo, god of music and dance, to a musical contest.

Apollo accepted Marsyas’s challenge on the condition that the winner could punish the loser however he wished. According to differing sources, the judges were either the Muses or the god Tmolus and the mortal King Midas. Tmolus and King Midas are the judges depicted in Jordaens’s painting.  

Apollo played beautifully on his lyre, and he was followed by Marsyas who also played beautifully on the flute. In the second round, however, Apollo outdid his competitor by either turning his lyre upside down to play or singing along with the tune he played. Marsyas could do neither. 

The Muses agreed that Apollo was the greater musician. The god Tmolus believed that Apollo had produced the most heavenly sound he had ever heard. King Midas, however, disagreed and said that the ruling was unfair. For this blasphemy, Apollo turned King Midas’s ears to donkey ears. 

Apollo was deemed the winner. For challenging a god, Apollo decided to punish Marsyas by pinning him to a tree and flaying him alive. 

Illustrating Blasphemy

Jordaens and Manfredi both illustrated the consequences of challenging a god.

Jordaens, a 17th-century Flemish painter, depicted four figures on a mountainside. Apollo is at the far left holding his lyre. According to Ovid’s poem, Apollo is dressed in robes dyed with Tyrian purple, but Jordaens depicted him in pinkish robes, unless the original color has faded.

To the right of Apollo is Tmolus, who is in the act of crowning Apollo the victor. Beside Tmolus is Marsyas, whose face is distorted since he continues to play his flute. The figure to the far right is King Midas. According to the Prado Museum website, Apollo is pointing at King Midas to give him donkey ears. 

Manfredi was a late 16th and early 17th-century Italian painter and leading member of the Caravaggisti, a group of painters who followed in the high-contrast style of Caravaggio. He depicted Marsyas enduring the punishment that comes from challenging a god.

Marsyas is on the left. He is tied to a tree and wears an animal pelt around his loins. Apollo is shown to the right of Marsyas; he wears the victor’s crown of laurel leaves and is dressed in a purple robe.

Apollo has just begun the act of flaying Marsyas. He looks calmly but intently at the satyr as he seems to slowly slice into his skin. In response to the pain, Marsyas leans forward, revealing some of the veins in his neck. The corners of his mouth draw downward, his eyebrows lift, and his eyes widen as the knife starts its journey.

Bartolomeo_Manfredi_-_Apollo_and_Marsyas_Saint_Louis_Art_Museum
“Apollo and Marsyas,” between 1616 and 1620, by Bartolomeo Manfredi. Oil on canvas, 37 5/8 inches by 53 9/16 inches. St. Louis Art Museum. (Public Domain)

Avoiding Blasphemy and Recognizing the Divine

Modern culture openly challenges the divine. Whether it’s in the sciences, academia, or arts and culture, traditional beliefs in the divine, in heaven, in God, in angels, and so on, are being challenged. 

Challenging the divine, however, comes with its consequences. Marsyas didn’t realize that the flute’s creation was divinely inspired or that the sound it emanated was a consequence of its divine nature. His pride, one of the most dangerous of character flaws, caused him to challenge Apollo, the divine representation of music itself.

Of course, Apollo wins the contest. Mere mortals may think they can challenge the divine, but they can never truly compete with divinity. But we must presume that Apollo, as a god, knew he would win. Why might he participate in the contest, then?

Maybe Apollo sought to leave a lesson to those who would later think it wise to challenge the heavens. In Jordaens’s painting, Apollo is shown turning King Midas’s ears to donkey ears. 

Is it the case that Apollo punishes King Midas for even daring to side with anyone who would challenge the heavens?

Is it also possible that Apollo turns King Midas’s ears to donkey ears because, unable to hear the beauty of heavenly music, Midas is no longer deserving of human ears? If so, this suggests that being worthy of being human is directly connected to recognizing and appreciating the divine, wherever and however it manifests.

Of course, the real punishment comes to those who directly challenge the divine. Because he challenged heavens, Marsyas is tied to a tree—which, to me, represents the earth—and made to suffer. Challenging heavens causes Marsyas to be imprisoned and tortured on earth. Apollo, however, is framed by the heavens, which reasserts his divine and heavenly nature.

Manfredi doesn’t depict Apollo as taking pleasure in the punishment he causes Marsyas. Instead, Apollo seems to calmly but intently do what he ought to do as a being of heaven: punish those who challenge the heavens. And Marsyas is punished greatly for his sin.

Both King Midas and Marsyas were prideful mortals. Their hubris did not affect them at first, but it eventually made them suffer.

For Those Who Recognize the Divine

This is not a call for us to attack those we think are challenging the divine. This kind of act would suggest that we are divine ourselves, a claim that is itself blasphemous. 

But if we do possess a connection to the divine, and if we are to be worthy as human beings, shouldn’t we try to recognize and appreciate the divinity in things? 

Is it the case that we should spend more time celebrating and encouraging an appreciation of the heavens and the divine, while leaving punishment to God? Should we repopularize, encourage, and appreciate the moral lessons that are prevalent in traditional stories concerning divine things, so that we may once again be worthy of our humanity? 

The traditional arts often contain spiritual representations and symbols the meanings of which can be lost to our modern minds. In our series “Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart,” we interpret visual arts in ways that may be morally insightful for us today. We do not assume to provide absolute answers to questions generations have wrestled with, but hope that our questions will inspire a reflective journey toward our becoming more authentic, compassionate, and courageous human beings.

Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist and is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).