• The 3000 year old story of The Iliad told through various Wedgwood wares.

Wedgwood and The Iliad

  • by Lauren Grattage

Framed Jasper Plaque

Theme

Revenge of Achilles

 

“My dearest companion is dead, Patroclus who was more to me than any other, whom i loved as much as my own life”

 

The grieving of Achilles is one of the most emotional scenes in western literature. Achilles a man, who lets his emotions completely control him, is engulfed by a painful, dark grief that completely consumes him. He loses all control of his actions, he weeps, he beats the ground with his balled fists, rips his hair from his head and he takes ash from the ground and rubs it across his face and perfumed tunic, his friend’s death literally ruining his perfections. It almost hurts to see the mortal side of Achilles, the side that is not just the son of a goddess, but a man whose grief is all too human. From this point in the epic, Achilles becomes what his fate foretold, a formidable fighter driven by his seething rage. He knows that if he goes to fight Hector, he will kill him, but in turn shall seal his own fate.

He runs to his mother and asks her to find him some new glorious armour to replace what Hector had taken. In a vain attempt to stop him she reminds him of what will happen to him if Hector dies, he answers honestly, “I have no wish to live.” Achilles no longer fights for neither the Greeks nor Agamemnon, he fights for Patroclus. The God Hephaestus himself makes the armour for the doomed warrior, creating a magnificent shield that would inspire artists for centuries. When he receives his armour Achilles goes on a rampage, killing as many Trojans as possible. He even fights a river when it becomes angry at Achilles for filling it up with bodies, he is simply unstoppable.

“Evil death is no longer far away; it is staring me in the face and there is no escape”

 

 His journey eventually leads him to the gates of Troy, ready to slaughter Hector where he stands. After being deluded enough to think he can console or reason with Achilles, being chased around the walls of Troy and being tricked by the Goddess Athena, Hector’s fate is finally upon him. The reader at this point feels sympathy for the doomed prince of Troy; he fights in a war that his brother started, knowing that he is the last defence of his people but also knowing that Troy will inevitably fall. He leaves behind a wife he loves dearly and a son he adores, in fact the only insight of family life we get in The Iliad is a scene where Hector briefly returns home. Hector knows that when he falls his wife will be beaten and forced into slavery and his son will be killed, but still he fights for Troy instead of being by their side where he wishes to be. He fights for his family and honour knowing that he is to be slaughtered in battle.

Perhaps Hector’s biggest mistake was to wear Achilles own armour to fight the man himself; he knew every weakness and every soft spot within it. Determined to avenge his companion, Achilles charges at Hector, knowing his weakest spot, and stabs him through the windpipe with his spear. Achilles then proceeds to maliciously maltreat his body before ripping hooks through his ankle ligaments and dragging him back to the Greek camp behind his chariot.

Jasper Plaque

That is the scene that is perhaps the most gruesome that Flaxman and Wedgwood created. It appears on many pieces, mostly like this Black Jasper Plaque with white relief. Here we see Priam, the elderly King of Troy lamenting on the walls of the city. His son and the last defence of Ilium are dead, and Troy is now destined to burn. Both the body of Hector and Achilles are presented in heroic nudity, a common practice in ancient art and neoclassic designs. However Hector is without helmet or shield meaning his nudity is also representative of his ultimate defeat. The two horses are lead by Nike, the decider of victory and defeat and divine charioteer. Nike herself holds a lot of symbolism (as she does in the Apotheosis of Homer) ; her wings represent victory, showing the gruesome victory Achilles now has won for his dead companion. She often is depicted carrying a woven crown to greet the winner with after their fight. Here the crown is for Achilles. Perhaps the most important object she carries is the palm branch. Not only is it a symbol of victory but an emblem of immortality. She is showing that the very actions that will seal Achilles’ fate and doom him to an early grave will also lead to his name becoming immortal and remembered for centuries.

This is also the best piece to show the depth of Achilles unstoppable, consuming anger. Respect for the dead, ironically especially in battle, was an important concept and tradition. How you treated your fellow man in death was a representation of who you were in life. There were various customs and rituals to follow; to not do so was an insult to human dignity. By seeing Achilles not only slaughter a young man in front of his family but foully mistreat it truly shows how uncaring and unstable Achilles is at this point in The Iliad. To steal a man’s body away from his parents, mistreat and mutilate it and refuse them a proper funeral was considered perverse.

However it also shed some light onto the pain that Achilles still feels. Killing Hector wasn’t enough. Claiming his body wasn’t enough. Even mutilating it didn’t numb the pain the Phthian warrior felt. Achilles is trying to remove his pain the only way he knows how, but even this brutal revenge did nothing to lessen his unbearable grief.

Catalogue

Achilles dragging the body of Hector