5th century CE. Paphos, Archaeological Park
5th century CE.
Paphos, Archaeological Park.
On the left of the picture the baby Achilles is seated in the lap of a somewhat robust nurse, Anatrophe. His eyes stare emptily at the spectator. Anatrophe, depicted in three-quarter view, her dull face in frontal view, is dressed in a long tunic with a mantle covering her lap. She is preparing to dip Achilles in the water held in a large cylindrical basin standing near the couch upon which Thetis reclines on a thick mattress. By the foot of the couch there is a column, and another one is visible in the background. Behind them hangs a grey-white curtain indicating that the scene is taking place in a palace. Depicted next to the nurse is a woman called Ambrosia bringing water in a golden jar. Peleus, the king, is seated on a throne on the other side of the couch facing his wife. He is dressed in a white tunic and a thick mantle. A white fillet surrounds his head indicating his royal status. In his left hand he holds a staff (sceptre). Behind Peleus’ throne stand the three Fates — Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos — all dressed in a similar way. They have long tunics with mantles wrapped around their heads like shawls. Clotho holds a spindle and distaff, Lachesis a diptych, and Atropos is represented with an open scroll upon which Achilles’ life was inscribed.
Iconoghraphically, the pavement is of great interest. The first bath of a newly born hero or god is a theme commonly found in Roman art, for example in depictions of the life of Dionysos or Alexander the Great. It is, however, on the mosaic in the Villa of Theseus that this simple act of the first bath of a newly born child acquires a more profound and symbolic significance, connecting the myth of Achilles to the vain human efforts to gain immortality. This representation sets the pattern for later depictions of the Nativity and the first bath of Jesus Christ as depicted in mosaics and murals of Byzantine and Mediaeval churches. Artistically speaking, the picture is not very successful. The plastic rendering of the figures is far from satisfactory. They are flat. The artist visibly failed in the manner in which he used colour to create the impression of volume. The foreground and the background of the composition are not well differentiated. The first row of figures appears stuck to the figures behind with no intervening space. The whole scene is essentially static, solemn, almost hieratic. It differs profoundly in spirit, style and composition from all the other pavements in the villa. We are presented here with a product of different times. The Achilles mosaic appears to have been made in the course of the 5th century A.D. and is the latest of all the figural representations from the villa.