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

Wedgwood and The Iliad

  • by Lauren Grattage

The Apotheosis of Homer vase and base

Theme

Almost 3000 years after it was first composed; The Iliad remains the most celebrated example of western literature. Set in the midst of the dark, unending Trojan War, we are introduced to Achilles, legendary champion of the Greeks, and his rage at his humiliation by Agamemnon. He is so full of hatred for the Greek King, he prays to Zeus and begs him to let the Trojans slaughter his comrades. But his ignorance only comes back to haunt him, as his lifelong friend and loyal companion Patroclus is slaughtered by man slaying Hector of Troy. Achilles, engulfed in grief and desperate for revenge storms onto the battlefield, knowing it ensures him own end. Interwoven with this tragic loss of life are touching descriptions of the struggles of battle, the helpless lives of the doomed women of Troy, and the endless conflict of the Gods high in Olympus as they argue the fate of mortals. 

 

Homer

The man who is credited with writing The Iliad is as shrouded in mystery as the epic itself. Traditionally, it was taught that the poem was written by one man in around 726 BC, a well-educated Greek bard: Homer. So little is known about the life of this enigmatic man that a lot of the information gathered on him is either probably incorrect or purely guesswork. He is thought to have lived in around the 8th-7th Century, been a professional bard or well educated scholar, and been blind. 

Modern research and investigation into both this infamous stranger and the origins of The Iliad have shed light on some interesting theories about the poem. Although a lot of people credit the writing down of The Iliad to Homer, the poem is known to have existed a long time before he was even born. With the majority of Greeks being unable to read or write, poetry was mainly spread via oral recitation. Bards would remember great lengths of poetry to recite to audiences at feasts or parties, usually someone would request a certain poem or epic tale, which the bard would then recite from memory. This is how separate "books" in The lliad became as famous in ancient Greece as they are today. The Iliad as we know it was born when Homer, or whoever one credits with writing it, collected the whole 24 poems and wrote them down as one epic. So, Homer could be credited with writing it and forming a clear chronology, but the stories had been favourites for generations. 

Another popular theory is that "Homer" was not a single man. It is a theory that has been debated from the 3rd Century BC, that what we first thought was a well educated bard was actually a group of people working together. It would have been a lot of work for one person to have found all relevant versions of the story before writing them down, adding his own touch and expanding or contracting to fit what he felt was right. 

It is unknown whether Homer existed as we know him today, or if he did write The Iliad, but what we do know is that he was a prominent figure in Neoclassical design and in Wedgwood wares. There are a great number of busts, vases and badges with depictions of the poet stuck onto them; they would have been popular at the time. Alexander Pope translated the first English edition of The Iliad in 1715, meaning that the Greek epic became easily accessible to those who could read. Homer, like all ancient artists, was considered a genius and his written work, a piece of art. 

The Apotheosis of Homer

An Apotheosis was an ancient ritual that turned a mortal man into a God, or raised them to the level of divinity itself. The Apotheosis of Homer represents this ritual; it depicts Homer no longer existing as a mere mortal but being made an immortal being. Wedgwood made sure that he could reflect this grandeur in this work. The piece, produced in 1790, that welcomes you into the museum is simply breathtaking. A true display of the talents that both Wedgwood and Flaxman possessed. The pedestal on which it stands is separate but equally impressive, cylindrical in shape and made of Jasper. The designs perfecting the base include: fruiting vines, medallions, lion heads, ribbons and trophies which are all emblems of victory and great talent. 

The vase itself is one engulfed in the ancient world. The design that covers the front of the vase is one taken from an ancient Krater (large pot for mixing wine and water.) Apotheosis in the ancient world was seen as true transcendence, a rare connection with the divine. Emperors in Rome were famously made Gods after their mortal deaths; the idea of divinity was a central part of how society ran in the ancient world. The symbolism used in the vase shows this quite clearly. Its composition makes the occasion quite obvious, Homer sits central on the piece. He is flanked by two Nike (winged victory) figures and a man and a woman both seated either side of the stage.

Although Flaxman drew inspiration from the original piece, unlike Greek art this vase is full of space, giving the figures room to exist and not be covered or unseen. The figure claims to be Homer is holding a Kithara, a large instrument that was played like a lyre. In the ancient world, playing the Kithara was a sign of being both civilised and cultured: a symbol of great knowledge. Even in the Iliad itself, Homer famously makes Achilles the only character seen to play a lyre in camp whilst singing, a sign of his often forgotten civility.

At the top of the lid stands Pegasus rising out of the clouds. In the ancient world was shown to represent divine inspiration or a journey to the heavens. In mythology riding on his back was synonymous to visiting the heavens or gaining immortality. 

A darker but equally beautiful side to the piece is the addition of the Medusa masks underneath the handles. The handles themselves are beautiful examples of the intricacy associated with Wedgwood's work. The handles are made out of separate bodies of serpents, twisting until they meet at the nose at the top of the vase. Medusa is a common relief found in pieces associated with Greek myth or heroic tales. 

Catalogue

Josiah thought highly enough of this vase form to offer it in 1786 to the British Museum, who accepted despite their general policy then of not accepting objects of contemporary manufacture.Pedestal is cylindrical in shape its body is made from blue jasper Further decoration to exterior are relief's in white jasper depicting fruiting vines, medallions, lions heads, ribbons and trophies.