Iris Murdoch, who would be ninety-six today, thrilled to paintings of every stripe, but she was compelled by one work in particular: Titian’s The Flaying of Marsyas, from the late sixteenth century. She mentions it in her 1990 Art of Fiction interview:
Do you see a painting you are particularly interested in and think, I might be able to use that some day in a novel, or I’d like to use it because it attracts and interests me?
The novel often indicates a painting during the process of creating the characters. Somehow the character will lead to the painting. A great painting that I have only recently seen—it lives in Czechoslovakia—is Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas. He was over ninety when he painted it. This painting gives me very much, though I have only referred to it indirectly.
Elsewhere, Murdoch has called the painting the greatest in the Western canon. It makes prominent appearances in her novels A Fairly Honourable Defeat, The Black Prince, and Jackson’s Dilemma; she even went so far as to include it in the background of her portrait, which hangs at the National Portrait Gallery in London. The Flaying of Marsyas has “something to do with human life and all its ambiguities and all its horrors and terrors and misery,” she told the BBC, “and at the same time there’s something beautiful, the picture is beautiful, and something also to do with the entry of the spiritual into the human situation and the closeness of the gods … I regard Dionysus in a sense as a part of Apollo’s mind … and want to exalt Apollo as a god who is a terrible god, but also a great artist and thinker and a great source of life.”
The painting was one of Titian’s last, and it’s full of primeval fire. It’s drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which the satyr Marsyas brags that his skills on the auros, a double-piped reed instrument, are superior to Apollo’s on the lyre. The two agree to a kind of duel-cum-jam-session. But Apollo is, of course, a god, meaning he’s not just a better musician but a more temperamental one, inclined to punish all who defy him. And so he flays Marsyas alive for his hubris, a fate Ovid describes with violent relish:
As he screams, the skin is flayed from the surface of his body, no part is untouched. Blood flows everywhere, the exposed sinews are visible, and the trembling veins quiver, without skin to hide them: you can number the internal organs, and the fibres of the lungs, clearly visible in his chest. The woodland gods, and the fauns of the countryside, wept … The fertile soil was drenched, and the drenched earth caught the falling tears, and absorbed them into its deep veins.
Titian, painting with his brush and his thumb from a palette of squalid browns and reds, depicts the flaying every bit as vividly. There’s something especially gruesome about that little dog at the bottom, sniffing, if not lapping, at a puddle of blood. “Did Titian know that really human life was awful,” Murdoch writes in Henry and Cato, “that it was nothing but a slaughterhouse?” Short answer: yes.
Small wonder that Murdoch, whose novels are meditations on cruelty, was so attracted to Titian’s painting. It bears the same moral weight she brought to her fiction. “A novelist is bound to express values,” she said in her Paris Review interview, “and I think he should be conscious of the fact that he is, in a sense, a compulsory moralist.” And there’s something compulsorily moral in Flaying, which demands that the viewer reckon with intense physical suffering, and to judge it as right or wrong. But her reading of the painting departs from the norm, as Jeffrey Meyers notes in an excellent piece from The New Criterion a few years ago. (Meyers interviewed Murdoch for our Art of Fiction series, too.) “Instead of using Marsyas in a conventional novelistic way,” he writes,
Murdoch alludes to it indirectly. She opposes traditional interpretations of the picture, and perversely distorts its meaning for her own fictional purposes. Where others have found in the myth a cruel story of a vengeful god, she finds in it a religious experience, in which the sufferer learns to transcend the loss of ego.
If you look at Marsyas’s face, you can see what Meyers means: far from anguished or abject, his expression is placid, if not outright peaceful. “Why do you peel me out of myself?” he asks in A. S. Kline’s translation of Ovid—a formulation that gets at the transformative, self-abnegating effect of his pain. While I don’t think I can join Murdoch in seeing its religious import—you can put me in the “astoundingly cruel god turning life into a slaughterhouse” camp—there’s no doubting that it haunts us, in its vagaries and ambiguities.
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.