Teatro delle Crudelta – Roberto Ferri

Devastating beauty disguising a deadly purpose.  It’s an ongoing theme in mythology. It’s no different in Roberto Ferri’s theatre of  cruelty.

Reminiscent of artists such as Caravaggio, Ferri creates beautiful, erotic and fearful art.   It would be so easy to believe that this was painted as part of the baroque movement, but Ferri painted this stunningly dark piece in 2010.

The style in which he paints is true homage to Da Vinci and Caravaggio, the distant mountainous background and the scene being set with curtains dressing the focal point, echoing the feel,that this is a staged death for entertainment purposes, which for the sphinx it would have been.

What are we actually seeing here? A headless and armless man strung up by a sphinx, but one you have probably never seen depicted in this way.  Ferri has mixed the Greek and Egyptian depiction of the tradition along with adding his own slant to present the sphinx not as a terrifying and daunting creature, but one that is deeply sexual and holds hidden threats.

I’m sure when you think of a sphinx, you think of the most famous one…the one which guards the pyramids in Cairo.  The body of a lion and the head of a man.  While the Greek and Egyptian stories of the sphinx are almost identical, their imageries do differ.  The Greek sphinx had the body of a lion and the head of a women…sometimes she would be shown with wings of an eagle.

In this painting we see, very obviously that this would follow the Greek representation although the body has been added, making her appear a little more like a centaur.  She is fully developed and enchanting in her beauty.   Her sex very obvious as a distraction to the men that approach her.  Here we see her arms raised, almost stretching in a feline way, holding the chain of her hung lunch as she looks off in to the distance as if checking for more rivals.

The body of the lion…or lioness I should say as we can see from the swollen teat on the belly, is in a playful resting stance, the front paw curled in as the other is covered in the blood of its latest victim.  Note the blood on the back paw too, an indication of the recent attack.

The body of the man, shows the tortured muscle definition, as we see in the work of masters of the past, giving anatomical correctness to the piece.  

So why are we looking at this deeply disturbing scene? Mythology denotes that the sphinx would set riddles for those wishing to pass it  to get in to Thebes and those who could not answer would be killed and devoured by the sphinx.  The word sphinx comes from the Greek word sphìngō, which means to squeeze or tighten up.  This ties in with Ferri’s rendition as the lioness, as they are the hunters of a pride and they kill their prey by strangulation.  

The riddles set by the sphinx were the following:-

What creature has one voice and yet becomes four footed, two footed and then three footed?

There are two sisters, one gives birth to the other and in turn she gives birth to the first.  Who are the two sisters?

Ferri shows one of the many who failed to answer the riddles.  His head missing from the strangulation and his arm devoured.  The myth does go on to see the sphinx defeated by Oedipus, who answered both riddles correctly.  The sphinx then threw herself from the rocks she resided on, dying in the fall…although other versions of the myth say that she devoured herself.

I love this particular piece, as it shows the absolute power and prowess of the lioness and the female form.  The style, as in all Ferri’s paintings, deeply appeals to me as I have a bit of a soft spot for Caravaggio, and I love a good myth.  The central focal point  drawing you to the action of the piece, and the expressionism and emotions of the subject drawn out so that the viewer can feel the angisuh and torture coupled with the playful ambivalence of the sphinx.

Do you know the answers to the riddles?  Would you have been strung up and devoured on the way to Thebes?  Why not let me know….   

Better yet… like the picture or my ramblings?  Why not share it…


11 thoughts on “Teatro delle Crudelta – Roberto Ferri

Add yours

  1. I think the answer to first one is human. Using four feet as a kid (both hands and legs) and two legs as an adult and three feet (two legs with a cane) as an aged person, it’s very famous these days. But I don’t know about the other one, so do I have to answer like both riddle to enter or this enough? Btw great post, I don’t usually show much interest in paintings and its technicalities, but your approach seemed simple and knowledgeable, so I loved it!


  2. Does anyone knows where the original painting is ? Did someone buy it or is it in a museum ? I have to do a school project about this painting (btw thanks for the article it’s gonna help me a lot for that project) and I have to say where it’s location is


    1. I believe it might be in a private collection. I know there was a Ferri exhibition recently but I don’t know if this particular painting was part of it. Usually if it is in a private collection, the owner will loan out to museums.


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