Mosaic of the birth of Achilles

Mosaic of the birth of Achilles 
Nea Paphos, Cyprus, 5th century


The mosaic was found in 1970-1971 during the Polish excavations at Nea Paphos on the south coast of Cyprus. It is located in the central reception hall of a late Roman palace; except for a large lacuna in the center and a smaller one along the bottom, it is in good condition. 
The subject is the birth of Achilles. In the center Thetis reclines majestically on a couch. A nurse labeled Anatrophe ("Education") kneels at the left, holding out the newborn babe. Under the couch is a basin of water, in which he will be bathed, and at the left side of the scene a woman called Ambrosia (misspelled "Anbrosia") approaches with a pitcher. Next to Thetis is the somewhat smaller figure of Peleus, the father, enthroned and holding a scepter. Behind him and further to the right are the three Moirai, or Fates: Clotho, holding the spindle and distaff with the thread of life; Lachesis, with the tablet in which is inscribed Achilles' life; and Atropos, holding the scroll of eternity. All of the figures look outward at the beholder, even the little Achilles. Their gazes are severe, almost expressionless. The drapery is angular and simplified. Spatial relationships are suppressed, and the figures seem to float against the neutral background, their feet hovering above the undulating groundline. This Late Antique style is also seen in a mosaic from Soueidie, near Ba'albek, where the subject of one scene is the birth of Alexander. Archaeological evidence points to a date in the early fifth century for this mosaic. 
This is the fullest surviving version of the birth of Achilles; Peleus, the Fates, and the woman Ambrosia are not found elsewhere, although the central group of Thetis, nurse, and Achilles is similar to the birth scene in other pieces. The washing of the newborn child is common in other birth scenes (as in the Soueidie Alexander mosaic) and was adopted with few changes for the Christian nativity. The presence of the woman Ambrosia may allude to an old story that held that Thetis anointed Achilles with ambrosia to make him immortal. The Fates are in attendance because a new life is beginning; they also appear in a birth scene on a recently discovered child's sarcophagus in Sicily (Museo Nazionale Agrigento). Their presence also reminds us of the brevity of Achilles' life and of his mother's vain efforts to defy his fate. 

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The Byzantine Legacy
Created by David Hendrix Copyright 2016