THE SHIELD OF ACHELLES

In ancient times, as these stories, tales, and histories were spoken and traded, collected and written down, it was Homer who ultimately composed the epic poem The Iliad.  In so doing, he chronicled the adventures of the Greek army, the sack of Troy and the heroic wanderings of the many participants across the seas. 

In one section especially, he described at length the great warrior Achilles as he was preparing for his battles in the Trojan Wars.  Achilles’ mother, Thetis, who had foreseen these upcoming events, commissioned the blacksmith Hêphaistos to forge a shield, with many layers and stories illuminated on its face.  He, Achilles, would have a choice of living a long life in peace and relative obscurity, or going into battle, with imminent death awaiting, but having his name become legendary.  We all know which of these paths he took.

It was Homer’s description of this amazing shield, going into great detail on all levels, which we accept today as the first and most important example of the ekphrastic tradition. In reading The Iliad over the years since that time, many artists and poets have tried to explicate these details, in both analytical and romantic ways.

“Then, running round the shield-rim, triple-ply,
he pictured all the might of the Ocean stream.”[i]

Alexander Pope
“Diagram for Achilles’ Shield” (MS 4808)
1712-1724
Pen and ink on paper
The British Library, London

In the eighteenth century Alexander Pope set out on a personal project to create a modern translation of Homer’s Iliad.  It stretched out over a twelve-year period, and he supported himself during this time by selling subscriptions to this as a series.  Along with this writing project, he attempted to reconstruct the design of Achilles’ shield, paying close attention to Homer’s descriptions.  The drawings and diagrams that he created are now in the manuscript collection of the British Library.  They give an excellent glimpse into this fictional work of art, and the Ocean stream that runs around its shield-rim.

Homer continues to describe the richness and imagination of the decoration for Achilles’ shield.  In the lines below he lays out the scheme for this project, including several realms and worlds in which the story takes place. 

                                                               “Durable
fine bronze and tin he threw into the blaze
with silver and with honorable gold,
then mounted a big anvil in his block
and in his right hand took a powerful hammer,
managing with his tongs in his left hand.” 

“His first job was a shield, a broad one, thick,
well-fashioned everywhere.  A shining rim
he gave it, triple-ply, and hung from this
a silver shoulder strap.  Five welded layers
composed the body of the shield.  The maker
used all his art adorning this expanse. 
He pictured on it earth, heaven, and sea,
unwearied sun, moon waxing, and the stars
that heaven bears for garland:  Plêiades,
Hyades, Orion in his might,
the Great Bear, too, that some have called the Wain,
pivoting there, attentive to Orion,
and unbathed ever in the Ocean stream.”[ii]  

Later in history, the artisan John Flaxman was commissioned by the firm of Rundell, Brigge & Rundell in London to take Homer’s description of this shield, using the original Greek text and Alexander Pope’s translation, and using his own illustrations to reconstruct this great work of art.  It includes all of the realms and landscapes as they are described, as well as the people and all of the characters as they interact, in both war and peace.  To our modern eye, and mind, this shield may have been beautiful, however, it also would have been huge, impossible for a single warrior to wield. 

John Flaxman (Commissioned by Philip Rundell)
“Shield of Achilles”
1821
Silver gilt
90.5 x 90.5 x 18.0 cm
The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace,
United Kingdom

Coming closer to our own time, both W. H. Auden and Cy Twombly bring this imagery up to date.  A contemporary rendering of this story by Auden alternates shorter and longer lines in its retelling.  The following selected stanzas show Achilles’ mother, Thetis, looking over the shoulder of the blacksmith Hêphaistos during the process of the making of the shield.  She seems to be checking on its progress, with special attention to the inclusion of the many details that will go into this narrative. 

Auden however, sets a darker tone than the purely heroic one, including this description:  “An artificial wilderness and a sky like lead.”  Coming full circle, so to speak, the contemporary artist Cy Twombly re-visits this theme with a very energetic and abstract depiction of the shield.  Insane scribblings perhaps, yet they are lyrical and beautiful, graphic expressions with the pure kinetic energy that enlivens Achilles’ shield. 

The Shield of Achilles

“She looked over his shoulder
         For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-groomed cities
         And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
         His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
         And a sky like lead.” 

“She looked over his shoulder
         For ritual pieties,
White flower-garlanded heifers,
         Libation and sacrifice,
But there on the shining metal
         Where the altar should have been,
She saw by his flickering forge-light
         Quite another scene.” 

Cy Twombly
“Fifty Days at Iliam:  Shield of Achilles”
1978
Oil, crayon and graphite on canvas
75 1/2” x 67”
Philadelphia Museum of Art,
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

“She looked over his shoulder
         For athletes at their games,
Men and women in a dance
         Moving their sweet limbs
Quick, quick, to music,
         But there on the shining shield
His hands had set no dancing-floor
         But a weed-choked field.” 
“The thin-lipped armorer,
         Hephaestos, hobbled away,
Thetis of the shining breasts
         Cried out in dismay
At what the god had wrought
         To please her son, the strong
Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles
         Who would not live long.”[iii]


[i] Homer; The Iliad; Everyman’s Library and Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London and Toronto; 1992; p. 454, lines 607-608.

[ii] Homer; The Iliad; Everyman’s Library and Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London and Toronto; 1992; pp. 450-451, lines 479-497

[iii] Auden, W. H.; Collected Poems; Modern Library; New York, New York; 2007; pp. 594-596.

EXPHRASTICS

“Someone, I tell you, in another time,
will remember us.”[i]

Ekphrasis or ecphrasis, from the Greek: a description of a work of art, either real or imaginary, produced as a rhetorical exercise; often used in the adjectival form, ekphrastic, a graphic, often dramatic, description of a visual work of art.

keats
John Keats
“Tracing of an engraving of the Sosibios vase”
1819
Ink on paper
The Louvre, Paris, France

From ancient times to the 20th century there has been an interdisciplinary dance played out between poets and painters. The idea of writing a poem or a play that was descriptive of, or inspired by a work of visual art was in fact invented by the Greeks. Homer’s description of the Shield of Achilles in the 18th Book of The Illiad being one of the first examples.

“Then first he form’d the immense and solid shield;
Rich various artifice emblazed the field;
Its utmost verge a threefold circle bound;
A silver chain suspends the massy round;
Five ample plates the broad expanse compose,
And godlike labours on the surface rose.
There shone the image of the master-mind:
There earth, there heaven, there ocean he design’d;
The unwearied sun, the moon completely round;
The starry lights that heaven’s high convex crown’d;
The Pleiads, Hyads, with the northern team;
And great Orion’s more refulgent beam;
To which, around the axle of the sky,
The Bear, revolving, points his golden eye,
Still shines exalted on the ethereal plain,
Nor bathes his blazing forehead in the main.”[ii]

This was of course, a literary fiction based totally on a plastic fiction, made real through the art of storytelling. The Romantic poet John Keats harks back to classic examples with his “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Published anonymously in the January 1820, Number 15 issue of the magazine “Annals of the Fine Arts” it is an elegaic description on this single object. Early speculation centered around the fact that Keats had based his poem on a specific vase, either “The Sosibios Vase” at the Louvre in Paris or later on “The Townley Urn” at the British Museum in London. Nowadays it is considered that his work is more of a synthesis of several objects.

townley
“The Townley Urn”
100-200AD
Marble
H:1.06 metres
The British Museum, London

“Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?”

“O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”[iii]

Keats ends his poem with an observation that has become an everlasting philosophical debate: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” From artists’ arguments in cafes and bars to doctoral dissertation defenses, it has become an ongoing discussion. Whether writing directly from a work of art as the primary source, as Keats has done, or inventing an image and then writing about it, this form of inspiration flows directly from the visual artist to the writer. In some more recent cases the artist seizes upon an image written by a poet and then makes a drawing or painting.

Near the end of his life, the 20th century abstract painter Philip Guston chose an entire new direction for his work, seeming to reject everything he had created before. He got himself hated by many former friends, but not everyone. Younger poets and painters recognized this new figuration, not as a retreat back into a mimetic mode, but as a venture into a new plastic and literary arena. His late drawings and paintings are a rare example of real dialogue between one painter and several contemporary poets. These poets included: Clark Coolidge, Bill Bergson, Musa McKim, Anne Waldman, William Corbett, Frank O’Hara and Stanley Kunitz.

guston
Philip Guston
“Untitled (Book)”
1968
Goache on paper board
51 cm x 76 cm
Estate of the artist

A generation later, young painters who had studied exclusively with abstract artists in school struggled to find their own voices and visions. It seemed like a dead end to continue without a subject, or subject matter. At first they were accused of producing ‘bad’ painting. With a few more artists testing these waters they became known as ‘New Image’ painters and even ‘neo-expressionists.’ Amongst these artists were: Susan Rothenberg, Robert Moskowitz, Elizabeth Murray and Neil Jenney. All were working, in no small part, thanks to the doors that Philip Guston had opened.

“Henceforth a painting was a legible record of all the decisions, whether tentative or assured, that went into its conception and realization. The issue was not one of speed . . . but rather one of the immediacy and responsiveness of process, the simultaneity of thinking and making.”
Philip Guston [iv]


 

[i] Sappho; “No Oblivion,” The Complete Poems of Sappho (translated by Willis Barnstone); Shambala Publications; Boston & London; 2011; [147].

[ii] Translated by Alexander Pope. This poem is in the public domain.

[iii] Keats, John; John Keats: The Major Works; Oxford University Press; Oxford & New York; 1990 & 2001; pp. 288-289.

[iv] Storr, Robert; Philip Guston; Abbeville Press; New York, New York; 1986; p. 25.