Apollo and Pan had a musical contest. Midas chose Pan as the victor, and Apollo punished Midas by giving him ass's ears. Midas stands between Apollo who is seated with his lyre on the right, and Pan with his pipes to the left.The subject derives from Ovid, 'Metamorphoses' (11).
The fresco (transferred to canvas) comes from a series painted in the Stanza di Apollo in the garden pavilion of the Villa Aldobrandini, Frascati.
The artist painted all six figures, but the landscape may have been made by an assistant. Seven chalk preparatory drawings for the figures by Domenichino survive (Windsor, Royal Collection).
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Many of the paintings in the National Gallery are inspired by classical myths, and by one work in particular – Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Indeed, the 17th century artist, Domenichino, created a cycle of ten frescoes featuring scenes from the book. We asked storyteller Hugh Lupton to choose one of his paintings and tell us a tale. He selected The Judgement of King Midas, a picture that shows what happened next to King Midas after all that gold...
Hugh Lupton: King Midas was walking deep in a forest far from his palace, far from the glitter and the glimmer of golden statues and the clink and the chink of golden coins. And as he was walking, he saw in a clearing there was Pan, the god of wild things, the god of wild places, and he was amazed. Pan was playing his pipes. King Midas crouched behind the bushes and he watched and he listened.
Pan was playing and playing and playing his pipes and then he lowered his pipes from his lips and he began to boast. ‘I’m the finest musician of them all. I’m the finest musician in the world. I’m a finer musician even than golden Apollo when he plucks his golden lyre’. Well, nothing is hidden from the ears and the eyes of the mighty gods, and straight away Apollo appeared in the clearing in front of Pan and King Midas. Two gods glowering at one another! And Apollo said ‘Pan, we will have a contest of music, you and I, and the judge will be this mountain’ and he gestured to a great mountain called Tomolus (sp?) that rose up high above the tops of the trees. And as Apollo gestured with his hand, a strange thing. On either side of the mountain, two huge grey stone ears unfolded. And the first to play was Pan.
He lifted his pipes to his lips and he blew and in his music were all the sounds of wild nature. The baying and the belling of stags, the howling of wolves, the pounding of hooves, the creaking of branches, the crashing of flood water, the humming of bees, the bright songs of birds. It was a music both beautiful and terrifying at the same time.
And then Pan lowered his pipes and it was golden Apollo’s turn. He lifted his lyre to his shoulder and he began to play and to any one listening it was as though the strings of his lyre were the threads of the loom upon which the whole world is woven. Every note was an element, every melody was a formula, and as the shimmering, cascading music came, the whole of creation held its breath. And when Apollo lowered his lyre from his shoulder, the whole world sighed. Pan dropped to his knees and lowered his head. And the great mountain Tomolus opened its cavernous cave of a mouth and pronounced ‘Apollo is the winner’. And then from behind the bushes there came a voice. ‘No! Why should the victory go to golden Apollo? Why should the victory go to the plinkety plonk of a plucked lyre when Pan’s music is the real thing. Pan’s music is finer by far.’ It was King Midas. Golden Apollo turned and looked at him and frowned. And with the frown of Apollo a strange thing. King Midas felt suddenly changed. He lifted his hands to his face and his ears had moved. They were no longer growing out of the sides of his head; they were growing out of the top of his head. Two grey hairy twitching bristling donkey’s ears.
For one appalling moment he waited to see if the transformation was going to spread downwards. But no. Just his ears. Those ears that had listened and had not heard had been turned into the ears of an ass.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Hugh Lupton.
From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Forty Six, August 2010