The latest loan exhibit to go on public view in the National Gallery's West Building presents one picture only. But what a work it is.

"The Flaying of Marsyas," a late masterwork by Titian, is among the strangest paintings in the history of art. It blends pain and sweet serenity, headline news and myth. Its message is redemptive. Yet to see it is to shudder. Its busy gods and morals -- why are they so calm? -- are acting out a moment of excruciating horror: Marsyas, the satyr, is being skinned alive.

The canvas -- here on loan from the old Archepiscopal Palace, now a state museum, in Kromeriz, Czechoslovakia -- is not a young man's picture. It was probably completed in the early 1570s when Tiziano Vecellio, that greatest of Venetians, was well into his eighties. In each of its free brush strokes an old man's gathered daring and a lifetime's learning glows.

When seen beside the Marsyas, most paintings of the Renaissance look airless and precise. Marble floor tiles of black and white march into the distance in absolute obedience to the laws of perspective. The green leaves do not flutter, the sea-blue waves are still, and each saint or god or hero stands in his measured place. But here the rules dissolve. Titian's dark sky boils. He has long ago dispensed with his straightedge and his compass. Of the other great Italians, only aging Michelangelo, in his last, rough, chiseled statues, handled surfaces so freely. Titian's swiftly moving brush summarizes ceaselessly. The objects in his world aren't formed of polished, solid stuff but of palpitating light. The world itself seems flayed.

The picture at the gallery -- it hangs in Lobby A, next to the West Garden Court -- may well baffle modern viewers. The meditating king at the painting's right, why does he have an ass' ears? Why is Marsyas hanging there? What sin has he committed? And who is that kneeling youth, his blond hair wreathed in laurel, who, shining knife in hand, pulls away the skin from the satyr's chest?

The literates of Venice, those who saw the picture new, would have known the answers. The kneeling, laureled youth is the god Apollo. The pensive king is Midas. The painting illustrates an antique myth. It fact, it conflates two.Tale of Marsyas and Apollo

"One day," writes Robert Graves in his book on the Greek myths, "Athene made a double flute from stags' bones and played it at a banquet for the god." At first she could not understand why Hera and Aphrodite laughed so at her playing, but when she played the flute again beside a Phrygian stream, the sight of her reflection -- "that bluish face, those swollen cheeks" -- made her realize at once how ludicrous she looked. Throwing down the flute, Athene laid a curse on anyone who picked it up.

"Marsyas was the innocent victim of this curse. He stumbled upon the flute, which he had no sooner put to his lips than it played of itself, delighting the ignorant peasants. They cried out that Apollo himself could not have made better music, even on his lyre, and Marsyas was foolish enough not to contradict them. This, of course, provoked the anger of Apollo, who invited him to a contest, the winner of which should inflict whatrever punishment he pleased on the loser. Marsyas consented, and Apollo impanelled the Muses as a jury."

Though the contest proved an equal one, Apollo won -- by trickery -- after challenging the satyr "to do with your instrument as much as I can do with mine: turn it upside down and both play and sing at the same time."

"Then, for all his pretended sweetness, Apollo took a most cruel revenge on Marsyas: flaying him alive . . ."

A Phrygian peasant (easily identified by his Phrygian cap) helps the sun god at his grisly task. The cursed pipes hang above.

The figures at the painting's right suggest another music-making contest. Apollo won this one as well, this time beating Pan. Among this contest's judges was the unfortunate King Midas. Notorious for his foolishness (and no doubt tone-deaf, too), Midas voted for the goat-legged god -- and was punished by Apollo with a pair of ass' ears.

The lyre-and-panpipe contest was read by Titian's audience as one between the higher, sunlit realm of art and man's lower and irrational, perhaps bestial, self. And it was not Apollo's trick alone, but the hubris of Marsyas in challenging a deity that helped to seal his fate.

The flaying of the satyr also may be taken as something more than mere unfair, horrific torture.

"Punishment," writes Sydney J. Freedberg, the gallery's chief curator, "is not the end purpose of the flaying; the stripping away of the skin from the body was taken as an act of sacrificial purification: of revelation of an inner truth, the victim's essential self."

Marsyas, through his suffering, was in a sense redeemed.The Historical Context

Even those familiar with the myths that it relates are liable to find Titian's seven-foot-high painting eerily unnerving. Apollo, though a god, does not seem to comprehend the full import of his actions. Marsyas, though dying, stares out from the picture as if accepting our allegiance. And the lap dog in the foregound drinking up the blood is no mythic creature, but an emblem of frivolity -- and perhaps of Venice, too.

Freedberg -- in a remarkable illustrated essay published in FMR magazine in September 1984 -- convinces us that Titian's work is more than just a scene from myth, and more than just a shocker. It is a veiled comment, too, on the victims and the victories of the Venetian wars.

The small dog is a clue. A symbol of the present, and of pampered urban life, it laps the sacrificial blood as one might take the Eucharist -- in acceptance of being saved.

This is Freedberg's explanation:

"For many years, but particularly since the mid-16th century, the Venetians had been harassed throughout their extensive Mediterranean dominion by the Turks. In 1570 only a few years, at best, before Titian made the picture came a particularly determined Turkish offensive that devoured most of the island of Cyprus, a Venetian colony since the late 15th century; and in September of that year the Turkish forces laid siege to the main Venetian military stronghold on the island, Famagusta. After a series of attacks of an extraordinary ferocity, and a defense of a stubbornness to match, the Turks took the city almost a year later, on 1 August 1571. The terms of surrender offered to the Venetian commander, Marcantonio Bragadin, were reasonable, and in some respects even chivalrous. Four days after the surrender, on 5 August, Bragadin went out from Farmagusta with his staff, all in full ceremonial garb, to present the keys of Farmagusta to the Turkish general, Lala Mustafa Pasha. Hardly had the meeting begun, when its temper changed monstrously and without warning. The accounts of what occurred then . . . are all in accord. A noted modern historian of Venice, John Julius Norwich, has synthesized their substance most effectively; we give his version:

"Mustafa received them with every courtesy; then, without warning, his face clouded and his manner changed. In a mounting fury, he began hurling baseless accusations at the Christians standing before him. They had murdered Turkish prisoners; they had concealed munitions instead of handing them over according to the terms of surrender. Suddenly, he whipped out a knife and cut off Bragadin's right ear, ordering an attendant to cut off the other and his nose. Then, turning to his guards, he ordered them to execute the whole party. Astorre Baglioni was beheaded; so too was the commander of artillery, Luigi Martinengo. One or two managed to escape, but most were massacred . . . Finally the heads of all those that had been murdered were piled in front of Mustafa's pavilion. They are said to have numbered 350 . . .

"The worst fate had been reserved for Marcantonio Bragadin . . . First he was dragged around the walls, with sacks of earth and stones on his back; next, tied onto a chair, he was hoisted to the yardarm of the Turkish flagship and exposed to the taunts of the sailors. Finally, he was taken to the place of execution in the main square, tied naked to a column, and, literally, flayed alive . . ."

One can easily imagine the terror felt in Venice at the news of Famagusta. Imagine then the joy, the unrestrained thanksgiving, that must have attended the report, a few weeks later, that the Venetian fleet had vanquished that of Turkey at the battle of Lepanto.

"Despair," writes Freedberg, "turned into celebration: as in the deeper meaning of the Marsyas legend, torment in the end laid truth bare, and as in the Christian legend, sacrifice begot redemption.

"If our assumptions are correct, the idea of the Marsyas was born out of the tragedy of Famagusta and the torture of Bragadin, but it was developed in the aftermath of exaltation over Lepanto . . . I propose that, in the historical circumstances we have just described, the image of the flaying of Bragadin took deep and troubling root in the old artist's imagination . . . The tragedy had to be commemorated and the harrowing image dealt with -- at once exorcised and exalted -- and since it was unthinkable in Titian's aesthetic that it could be depicted as a historical occurrence, it had to be represented by an analogue, and the flaying of Marsyas was one ready to hand."

After one reads Freedberg, the calm that fills the picture suddenly makes sense -- "all things coexist, subsumed into one resonating harmony, the comic and the cruel, the terrible and the sublime, ugliness and magisterial beauty."

"The Flaying of Marsyas," writes Freederg, "works a kind of alchemy, transmuting horror into art."

The painting, completed by Titian shortly before his death, of plague, in 1576, was purchased in 1620 by the Howards of Arundel. Bought from their estate in 1654 by Franz Imsteraed of Cologne, it was put up at lottery in 1673 and then came into the possession of Bishop Karl von Lichtenstein, who brought it to his seat in Czechoslovakia. Only once since then has it left the country -- for the great show of Venetian painting held in London in 1983. It will remain at the National Gallery through April 20.