The first bath of Achilles
Cyprus. The villa of Theseus.
5th century CE.
Paphos, Archaeological Park

The first bath of Achilles.

Cyprus. The villa of Theseus.
5th century CE.

Paphos, Archaeological Park.

The well-preserved panel represents the first bath of the newly born Achilles. (…) Achilles was the son of Peleus, king of the Myrmidones in Phthia, and of Thetis, one of the Nereids, daughter of Nereus, god of the waters. The immortal mother tried to ensure immortality for her mortal son. For this reason she held Achilles in fire and dipped him in the waters of the river Styx which had the miraculous qualities of protecting the body from all wounds. When bathing the baby she held him by his heel which thus remained vulnerable. A wound received at that spot during the Trojan War caused the premature death of the hero. The representation on the mosaic shows Thetis’ first endeavours according to a slightly different version of the myth.

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.

© 1998 Photo, text: W. A. Daszewski, D. Michaelidis. “Guide to the Paphos Mosaics”. Bank of Cyprus cultural foundation, 1998. P. 60—63.
Keywords: μωσαϊκό mosaic mosaics mosaica mosaici mosaik mosaïque ελληνική μυθολογία mythologia graeca greek mythology mitologia greca griechische mythologie grecque νύμφη νηρηΐς νηρηΐδες νηρηίδες nymphe nereis nereides sea nymph nymphs nereid nereids ninfa ninfe marine nereide nereidi nereïde nereïden nymphes marines néréide néréides greco greche griechisches grecquesё ἀχιλλεύς αχιλλέας achilleus achilles hero eroe achille heros achill héros mosaico floor bath akhilleus king peleus thetis baby tunic mantle basin couch mattress column curtain parapetasma palace ambrosia jar throne fillet diadem staff sceptre fates fate moira moirae parca parcae clotho lachesis atropos spindle distaff diptych
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