Wax model depicting the early life of Achilles
After living with his father (Peleus) and mother (Thetis) for the early years of his life, Achilles was sent to train with the legendary centaur Chiron. He was credited with teaching some of the most important heroes in Greek mythology; Asclepius, Perseus, Heracles, Jason and Phoenix all were mentored by him. It was here that Achilles formed a relationship with Patroclus, a young boy who had been sent exiled from his home country and sent to live with the Prince of Phthia. Even as a young child he possessed incredible skill at fighting and hunting even without training or much guidance from Chiron. The two were taught how to hunt, how to heal wounds and how to survive in the mountains of Greece. But no boy can escape his fate and as soon as they became of age a request was made that the two men should have the honour to fight to win back the beautiful Helen of Sparta, who had been recently stolen from her husband. Enraged and scared that her son would be killed in battle at such a young age, Thetis took Achilles away and hid him in Skyros, in the palace of Lycomedes an elderly king.
Three wax models in The Wedgwood Museum show this myth, each modelled by the artist considered to be the best employed at the Wedgwood school in Rome. It’s made of red wax on slate by Camillo Pacetti. The models show “The Discovery of Achilles” at Skyros and replicate a famous scene from a roman sarcophagus. These later became a series of 3 Wedgwood plates.
Thetis went to extreme lengths to hide her son from the searching embassy of Agamemnon, the General that was to lead the Greek forces to Troy. She was so desperate to keep her son hidden from his fate that she presented Achilles to the King as a woman, asking if he would allow her daughter to live with his famous harem of girls. He was given the name, "Pyrrha" or "the red haired." Whilst in Skyros he bedded Lycomedes' daughter, Deidamia, who would later give birth to his son Neoptolemus. He soon became irritated with his life on the island, he had gone from being a Prince who had done what he wanted, a free man living with Chiron and his companion, to being a woman who was forced to eat, dance and act as such.
When Helen of Sparta had come of age, suitors from across Greece came to claim the most beautiful woman in the world for himself. Obviously, high tensions and jealousy was inevitable, and so her father made sure that all suitors swore an oath. That they would protect the chosen husband from all those who threaten his claim to Helen, and defend her as his only. When Menelaus was chosen, men who held kingdoms across Greece took the oath. When she was later stolen by Paris/Aphrodite the men who had said the oath were forced to defend Menelaus in war. While Achilles was in Skyros, men had travelled to Agamemnon, the General who was leading them to Troy. Prophecy had told that The Trojan War would be the most famous in history and men were eager to be remembered for centuries for their efforts. But it was known amongst the men, that they had no hope of winning if "Aristos Achaion" or "best of the Achaeans (Greeks)" was not there to fight, the famed Price of Phthia would have to go to Troy with them.
Odysseus and Diomedes were among the generals sent to find him, when they finally arrived at Skyros after months of travelling, they knew some cunning could be needed. Odysseus sharpest of all the Greeks, had his companions fake an attack on the island whilst he was in council with Lycomedes and his girls. When the alarm was raised, without thinking, Achilles grabs the nearest weapons with such deadly accuracy and grace; it could be none other than the son of Thetis. For the sake of his honour, Achilles left with the two men, was reunited with his beloved companion Patroclus and began the long journey to his doomed fate.
Made in 1798 this central part of the model depicts the moment that Achilles' true identity is revealed. The women of Lycomedes court are seen cowering away from Achilles, who is presented in heroic nudity, a common feature in ancient and neoclassic design. The old king, Lycomedes is seen on the right, clearly shocked that the girl given to him by Thetis was actually one of the most feared warriors in Greece. He is being comforted by another young woman, perhaps the grieveing Deidamia, who knows that Achilles will go to Troy and leave her with child alone. The robes that are draped around Achilles' shoulders could be the dresses that he had been forced to wear, representing him throwing away his life at Skyros and reclaiming his valour. His right hand lies on his horses head, the horse and the soldier representing the intrusion to Lycomedes palace.
It makes for an interesting contrast between the blunt violence of the soldiers on the left side to the homely and graceful life presented on the opposite side. This scene marks the beginning of Achilles' new life, not only as a warrior but as a legend. This piece also highlights the main themes that run through the epic, for example heroism and gender inequality, which plays a key role later in Troy.
Three models depicting the early life of achilles modelled by the artist considered to be the best employed at the wedgwood School in Rome. Red wax on slate. Camillo Pacetti. 1798