Agony's Body Language

"It's difficult for me to walk past and not stop and gasp every time."—Alice Schwarz, educator

Balthasar Permoser (German, 1651–1732). Marsyas, ca. 1680–85. Marble on a black marble socle inlaid with light marble panels. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund and Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 2002 (2002.468). Learn more about this object.

How does the sculpted body communicate? Hear from Met experts, leading authorities, and rising stars, each with a unique viewpoint on the language of gesture, facial expression, and pose.

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Alice Schwarz: It's difficult for me to walk past this piece and not stop and gasp every time. Try to position your face, pick up this exact expression. Particularly if you are visiting with a companion, watch each other get into this facial expression.

Narrator: This sculpture is of Marsyas, a figure from Greek mythology who has just lost a musical contest to the god Apollo. His punishment is to be flayed alive.

Wolfram Koeppe: You first look at the impression of his face: the open mouth and the clinched eyes and the pressure, below the skin of his eyebrows, where you can see that, in his body, he's desperate, and his expression is full of pain. And if we explore it closer, we see that already part of his tongue is cut away, which was part of the punishment. So he can't even cry out to let the pain free.

The hair of Marsyas is depicted in an ingenious artistic way—into curls that go up like flames; the pain can emerge from the body like flames from a fire. The twisting head shows that the flaying has already started, because the skin is so thin that you see the flesh and the bone structure under it. You don't have one quiet point in the whole sculpture. Everything is moving. Even if it is a mythological figure, he is depicted like a human in pain, in desperate pain.

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