Josiah Wedgwood’s copy of the Portland vase
The Portland Vase
“Thetis answered him letting the tears fall, “Ah my child, your birth was bitterness...to a bad destiny I bore you in my chambers”
Perhaps the most famous of Wedgwood’s works The Portland Vase remains the centre of classical debate even today. With no obvious telling of who the infamous white figures are, the topic is up for deliberation. However, the most enduring and widely agreed theory is that the white relief depicts the meeting of Peleus, humble king and legendary warrior, and Thetis, lesser goddess and beautiful sea nymph.
The “Barberini” vase is one of the most famous pieces of ancient art, causing speculation and controversy since it was first unearthed. The vase is said to have been created between 27 BC and 14 AD, during the reign of Augustus, first emperor of Rome. The original vase was an Amphora vase, used for storing produce.
Birth of a Prophecy
What links this famous vase to a 3000 year old epic is the mythology that is wrapped around its outside. If we wish to relate this piece to The Iliad, two main figures on the vase are indeed Peleus and Thetis. Greek myth tells that Zeus wanted Thetis for himself, but was wary of the prophecy that she would birth a son stronger than his father. Zeus was then eager for her to marry a mortal, as to limit the power of the child. Peleus himself had fallen in love with the Nereid years before when he had seen her swimming past him as he sailed with the acclaimed Argonauts. Having found a seemingly perfect match for the sea Goddess, Zeus pressed Peleus to ask Thetis for her hand in marriage. This is shown on the first side of the Portland vase, or the side that depicts a crouching woman reaching out to the standing man on the right. This is the side that shows Peleus’ first attempt at wooing Thetis. The young Peleus is literally being guided by love, symbolised by a small Eros/cupid leading the way to her. It is also important to add that Thetis in various myths was able to change shape and transform into a plethora of animals to escape capture from mortal man. We see this mythology represented here, as although she reaches out for Peleus, which could be interpreted as a sign of consent, her transformation has already begun. A small sea serpent can be seen emerging from the Nereids’s left side, an animal synonymous with easy escape and trickery. In a great number of myths, especially Greek, Thetis was unwilling to marry Peleus and his love was unrequited. The bearded figure sat watching the two is Poseidon, without trident but stood with his leg resting on a rock, a stance ascribed to the Sea God. This supports the idea that this is Thetis, a Goddess of the sea seen here. According to various myths Peleus was angry that his love was unreturned. Impatient the young warrior visited Chiron, the famous, wise centaur. He explains that he must take Thetis by surprise and by force, telling him to sneak up her whilst she sleeps and ignore the pain her many forms might bring him. That is what the other side of the vase depicts. Thetis is seen lying on a rocky surface, the fallen torch symbolic of her sleep. Peleus here watches her from a distance, contemplating his next actions and how to go about subduing the sleeping Goddess. The female figure sat watching them is a common figure seen on both ancient pottery and Wedgwood wares. She is possibly a nymph from Pelion, representing the location of the story. Peleus would later attack the sleeping Goddess regardless of how much her various forms bit, scratched or hurt him. Other details also match up to the argument that it is indeed Peleus and Thetis on the vase. As well as the symbols the figures themselves carry, the ground itself represents Pelion. The trees, rocks and forests all hint that it is the famous mountain that the two sit upon. The presence of Poseidon not only represents the idea that a sea dweller is present, but also that this must be taking place near a body of water.
The bottom of the vase can also be linked with the epic poem by Homer. The pensive figure seen wearing a Phrygian cap and bringing his hand to his lips could be king Priam, the noble king of Troy mourning his slaughtered children and regretting the years of war he has endured. This links to the later books in the Iliad and bears an element of foreshadowing. A second, and more likely, theory is that the man is actually Paris, Priam’s incompetent, ignorant son. In Greek myth the marriage of Thetis and Peleus after her attack can be seen as the cause of the Trojan War. Eris, goddess of discord, wasn’t invited to the famous wedding of the couple and in anger she threw a golden apple into the festivities, labelled “for the fairest.” Three Goddesses claimed the apple, Hera, Athene and Aphrodite. The immortals, each angry that the others had claimed the title, sought decision from Zeus. Reluctant to help, Zeus gave Paris, a mortal Trojan prince, the judgement to bear. The Goddesses, each determined to win, bribed the handsome prince with extravagant prizes. Hera offered him Kingship, total power over Europe and Asia, Athene offered him skill and wisdom in war and Aphrodite offered him the world’s most beautiful woman. Not surprisingly Paris, being an infamous lover of many beautiful women took Aphrodite’s bribe and let her claim the title. In return, Aphrodite stole Helen, daughter of a God with the face that launched a thousand ships, from Menelaus of Mycenae and bought her to Troy. In other versions Paris himself abducts Helen away from the King. Menelaus is enraged at the dishonour this has caused him, thus, starting the Trojan War and the Iliad. In summary, the figure on the bottom of the vase, with his thoughtful composure and Trojan clothing is most likely to be a depiction of Paris, a theory that fits in with the theme of the rest of the vase.
The beautiful piece not only signals the start of a brutal 10 year war over a alluring woman, but also the beginning of Thetis’ woes as a mother. It was the birth of a prophecy that would sing across time itself. For the child that was born from Thetis’ attack was Achilles, greatest of all the Greeks, a legend in Greek myth, a man destined to be both immortal yet irrevocably doomed.
First edition copy of the Portland Vase, retained by Josiah as his own. Black jasper with white relief figures C. 1790-93.