An Unexpected Classical Source for Jacob Jordaens

An Unexpected Classical Source for Jacob Jordaens

by Edith Wyss

Jordaens and his school frequently depicted the musical contests between Apollo and Pan and between Apollo and Marsyas.[1] The version in the Mauritshuis in The Hague, which is thought to have been painted by Jordaens himself around 1640, is entitled Marsyas Ill-Treated by the Muses (fig. 1).[2] The following considerations will disassociate the painting from the Marsyas myth and propose an entirely different literary source for the imagery of Jordaens’s canvas.

It depicts two groups of female nudes in a delightful, sparsely wooded landscape. At right five women crowd around a seated satyr. One lashes his hands together, another grips his head, and a third pulls his beard while brandishing a pair of scissors. The four women at left observe the satyr’s predicament with glee. Apollo, the lyre at his side, surveys the scene from a rocky bank. Two shepherds witness the incident from a distance.

Rooses called the painting “châtiment de Marsyas.”[3] Van Puyvelde, too, interpreted the satyr as Marsyas and the nudes as nymphs who are about to punish him.[4] According to D’Hulst, the picture represents “an episode between the defeat of Marsyas and his flaying alive by Apollo.”[5]

The identification of the satyr as Marsyas must be questioned, because the syrinx and shepherd’s crook at his feet are more properly the attributes of Pan.[6] Furthermore, the presumed Muses appear without their instruments, and their deportment has little in common with the demeanor expected of the patronesses of the arts. According to Ovid, the contest between Apollo and Marsyas ended in the cruel flaying of Marsyas at the hands of the victor, while a gathering of nymphs and satyrs mourned their friend’s fate.[7] The Marsyas myth was often confused with the contest between Phoebus and Pan. Ovid related that this contest took place before an audience of nymphs, with the mountain god Tmolus and King Midas as judges. For his lack of discernment Midas was outfitted by Apollo with a pair of ass’s ears. Ovid records no punishment for Pan.[8] Obviously, Jordaens’s imagery fits neither tale. The motif he depicted does not appear in any of the commentated and popularized versions of the Metamorphoses, though these often stray far from the parent text. Van Mander’s Wtleggingh op den Metamorphosis, with which Jordaens was surely familiar, follows Ovid’s version faithfully.[9] Jordaens’s other depictions of the musical contests of Apollo do not deviate from the traditional Ovidian imagery. The large number of painted and engraved interpretations of Apollo’s musical contests by other artists offer, as far as could be ascertained, no precedent for Jordaens’s version.

In fact, the literary source of the punishment visited upon the satyr by the alluring females is not connected at all to Apollo’s contests. The theme occurs in the Eikones by Philostratus. This neo-sophist orator and author of the third century A.D. wrote descriptions of 65 paintings which he purportedly saw in a picture gallery in Naples. His text became known in Italy in the late fifteenth century as Eikones. It had its first printings in Venice, in Greek in 1503 and in Latin in 1532. A few of Philostratus’s descriptions were revived into paintings in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[10] Jordaens’s painting illustrates the eikon entitled “Pan.”


1. J. Jordaens, so-called Marsyas Ill-Treated by the Muses, here proposed as Pan Punished by the Nymphs, ca. 1640. Canvas, 77 x 120 cm.

The Hague, Mauritshuis, on loan from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

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