Hephaestus Forging the Shield of Achilles in Art Through the Ages

Did the fabulous Shield of Achilles forged by Hephaestus ever exist? Commanding a presence for something like 3,000 years so far, the existential reality of Achilles’ armor in art throughout the ages leaves little wiggle room for those who discredit Homer’s account of Achilles’ Shield.

Powerfully firing imaginations since the very first telling, Homer’s ancient narrative of Hephaistos forging the ageless and invincible weapons of Achilles has leaped into visual existence in creative bursts throughout the course of recorded history.

Ekphrasis: The West’s Oldest Form of Writing About Art

Recognized as Western civilization’s oldest form of writing about art, Ekphrasis was invented by the ancient Greeks. In fact, Homer’s description of Achilles’ shield in Book XVIII of the Iliad is considered the earliest and greatest example of ekphrasis.

Although the ekphrastic tradition carries the goal of creatively describing a beautiful work of art as if it were real, this literary tradition likewise hopes to make a reader envision a creation that, in fact, never existed.

Or do we only believe that any given figment of ekphrasis never existed because we didn’t really ‘see’ it?

Put simply, perhaps we just prefer believing that Homer didn’t really see the glorious shield he describes so wondrously?

Well, this may be the simpler explanation, after all, since not just the armor but Homer himself may have been only a figment of human imagination, and perhaps a blind figment, at that. Not to mention that such stunning armor is, from the start, attributed to the work of an Ancient Greek deity.

Thetis asking Hephaistos to forge new armor for Achilles, from Vignettes for Homer, by Edward Smith, engraver; Johann Heinrich Füssli (1741-1825), painter, London, FJ Du Roveray, 1 October 1805. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Thetis asking Hephaistos to forge new armor for Achilles, from Vignettes for Homer, by Edward Smith, engraver, after a painting by Johann Heinrich Füssli, London, FJ Du Roveray, 1 October 1805. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Rising up to aid Hephaistos, maids of gold moved like lively young girls;
Perfectly made, they had speech, wit, and motion, and other skills immortal.
Briskly surrounding their lord for support, he made his way to Thetis,
Gracefully waiting for him to join her upon a silver throne.

Taking her hand, he greeted her warmly, “Sweet Goddess, we are honored;
But are you in need, my dearest Thetis? Your visits are so seldom.
Please tell me if I may be of help, for I will if I am able –
If it is a thing allowed to be done, not known to be forbidden.”

“Hephaistos,” Thetis softly said, with tears on her lashes and cheek,
“Never has another Olympian goddess suffered such sorrow and pain.
No mortal before Peleus Aiakides, my husband chosen by Zeus,
Had ever been given a sea nymph to wed, nor gave her a cheerless bed.

“But there I accepted my wifely duty, endured without desire,
And though my man is constrained now by age, pain continues to mock me.
I nursed and raised the son gifted to me; he became a man above men.
Quickly he grew, and I nurtured him better than blossoming orchard trees.

“All this did I do just to see him off, in a ship bound for war with Trojans,
And I shall not see him in Peleus’ hall, his family home, again.
Yet even while sunlight still kisses his eyes, my son is destined to suffer
And I do not have the power to help him, though I stand nearby for comfort.

“The girl-prize given him by the Greeks, Agamemnon took back for his own.
Hot burned the heart of my son at this deed, and he yearned for the girl intensely.
Trojans in war beat them back to their ships, and the Greeks could not escape.
Agamemnon’s officers begged my son’s help and offered him incentives.

“He did not deem them worthy of aid, nor helped delay the disaster,
But armed Patroklos in his own gear, and sent him into battle.
Fiercely they fought at the Gate all day, and nearly took the city,
But Apollo spied Menoitios’ great son slaying many Trojans.
Killing him in battle, he then gave Hektor a hero’s reward for the deed.

“It is for this I have come to call: now my ill-fated son needs a shield.
A breastplate, too, and a crested helmet, and a pair of tight-clasping greaves.
Hektor stripped the armor from his slain foe, the courageous hero Patroklos,
And now my son lies numb on the ground, in his tent, overcome by grief.”

Enheartening her, the Great GameLegs said, “Have courage, my Lady! Please trust me!
Good gear I can make, but to hide him from death? Now, that is another matter…
I only wish I could help him with that, as I can with the making of arms,
For I am an expert – no eyes have beheld such gear as I shall provide him!”

Leaving her then, and going to his shop, he swiftly set about working.
Twenty smart bellows he aimed at the fire, stirring the coals up fiercely.
Huge bursts they could blow if the toil was tough, and delicate breaths as needed.
He spoke his commands and the bellows obeyed, fully used to the work required.

Molten gold and silver boiled in the blaze, and tin, and Olympian bronze.
With a powerful hammer in his right hand, and tongs in his dexterous left,
Hephaistos mounted the great iron block, knowing that all was in order.

His first task fulfilled was a well-fashioned shield; very strong, wide and shining.
Triple-ply was the sparkling rim around it, and the shoulder strap was silver.
The shield was skillfully crafted together, formed of five welded layers,
And Hephaistos surpassed himself with his art and his brilliant decoration…

[From Homer’s Iliad, Book 18, Lines 417 – 482, Vail’s translation]

Just the Stuff of Ancient Mythology and Nonsensical Fantasy?

For some readers, it may be enough to read Homer’s amazing words and simply consign such descriptions to the stuff of ancient mythology and nonsensical fantasy.

But for others, myself included, archaeologists offer convincing proof that such incredible weapons as Homer describes did, in fact, exist.

Late Bronze Age Mycenaean dagger, bronze with inlaid silver and gold depicting warriors hunting lions, ca. 16th century BCE. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Late Bronze Age Mycenaean dagger, bronze with inlaid silver and gold depicting warriors hunting lions, ca. 16th century BCE. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Thus it’s simply not acceptable to consign Homer’s glorious weapons forged by Hephaistos for Achilles merely to the dustbin of ekphrastic figments.

Furthermore, challenging our Western notion of nonexistence, Homer’s earliest ekphrasis of Achilles’ armor has powerfully navigated the passage of Time, carried aloft by an uncannily prophecied Kleos, and repeatedly celebrates a physical existence vividly and colorfully throughout History. (Google translates this concept into Latin as Ego picta ergo sum = I am painted therefore I am)

Reverse Engineering Homer’s Ekphrasis

By reverse engineering Homer’s description into artistic representations of Hephaistos forging Achilles’ glorious weapons, artists have charmed us with their interpretations practically since the very first narration.

Represented by some of the finest artists in History, the invincible armor of Achilles has enjoyed a very long and glorious career — especially for something that supposedly never existed.

The following is a broad survey of charming artistic representations of Hephaistos forging the armor of Achilles throughout history, from the 5th century BCE all the way to the 20th century. (Don’t mind the minor hiatus between the 5th-15th centuries CE due to the Dark Ages. Sadly, the entire media was on strike throughout the West.)

Please feel free to note your favorite ekphrastic image of Hephaistos forging Achilles’ armor, or list any others that I may have missed–your feedback and comments are always welcome!

Hephaestus Forging Achilles’ Shield in Art Through the Ages:

 

I. Hephaistos Presents Achilles’ New Armor to Thetis, Terracotta Kylix, ca. 490-480 BCE:

Hephaistos presents Achilles' new armor to Thetis. Attic Red-figure Kylix, ca. 490-480 BCE by the Foundry Painter. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hephaistos presents Achilles’ new armor to Thetis. Attic Red-figure Kylix, ca. 490-480 BCE by the Foundry Painter. Source: Wikimedia Commons

II. Hephaistos Polishing the Shield of Achilles, Terracotta Amphora, ca. 480 BCE:

Hephaistos polishing the shield of Achilles. Two-handled amphora, ca. 480 BCE by the Dutuit Painter. Source: MFA.org (for non-commercial use only)

Hephaistos polishing the shield of Achilles. Two-handled amphora, ca. 480 BCE by the Dutuit Painter. Source: © MFA.org (for non-commercial use only)

III. Hephaistos, Thetis, and Achilles’ New Weapons, Terracotta Volute Krater, ca. 330-320 BCE:

Hephaistos, Thetis, and Achilles' new weapons. Apulian Volute Krater ca. 330-320 BCE from Southern Italy. Source: © Ad Meskens / Wikimedia Commons

Hephaistos, Thetis, and Achilles’ new weapons. Apulian Volute Krater ca. 330-320 BCE from Southern Italy. Source: © Ad Meskens / Wikimedia Commons

IV. Hephaistos & Cyclops Forging Achilles’ Armor, Marble Tablet, ca. 15 BCE:

Carved and captioned scenes from the Trojan War on a tablet known as the Capitoline Tabula Iliaca, ca. 15 BCE, now in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Carved and captioned scenes from the Trojan War on a tablet known as the Capitoline Tabula Iliaca, ca. 15 BCE, now in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hephaestos and cyclops forging Achilles' Armor - Detail from the Tabula Iliaca from the Musei Capitolini Rome ca 15 BCE. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hephaistos and Cyclops forging Achilles’ Armor (middle line) – Detail from the Capitoline Tabula Iliaca, ca. 15 BCE, from the Musei Capitolini, Rome. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Σ (1) line 233, Ἀχιλλεύς, Πάτροκλος. Achilles seated at the foot of the bier weeps over Patroclus ; a boy (Automedon) and a maid join in the lamentation. (2) line 367; Θέτις. Thetis and one of her attendant nymphs on their way to Hephaestus. (3) line 478, Ὁπλοποία, Ἥφαιστος. Hephaestus and three Cyclopes forge the shield. Source: mediterranees.net

Line drawing detail, ca. 1895 by Theodor Schreiber from the Capitoline Tabula Iliaca, ca. 15 BCE. Σ (1) line 233, Ἀχιλλεύς, Πάτροκλος. Achilles seated at the foot of the bier weeps over Patroclus; a boy (Automedon) and a maid join in the lamentation. (2) line 367; Θέτις. Thetis and one of her attendant nymphs on their way to Hephaestus. (3) line 478, Ὁπλοποία, Ἥφαιστος. Hephaestus and three Cyclopes forge the shield.  Source: mediterranees.net

V. Hephaistos and Cyclops Forge Achilles’ Shield, Greco-Roman Marble Bas-Relief, Date Unknown:

Hephaistos and Cyclops forging Achilles' shield for Thetis, Greco-Roman bas-relief marble, date unknown, from the Pinacoteca Capitolina, Palazzo Conservatori, Rome. Source: Alinari / Bridgeman Images (for non-commercial use only)

Hephaistos and Cyclops forging Achilles’ shield for Thetis, Greco-Roman bas-relief marble, date unknown, from the Pinacoteca Capitolina, Palazzo Conservatori, Rome. Source: © Alinari / Bridgeman Images (for non-commercial use only)

VI. Thetis Receiving the Shield of Achilles, Restored Wall Fresco from the House of Vedius Siricus, Pompeii, ca. 68 CE:

Thetis Receiving the Shield of Achilles, ca. 68 CE, restored fresco from the House of Vedius Siricus and Vedius Nummianus, Pompeii. Source: © Buzz Ferebee / Pompeiiinpictures.com

Thetis Receiving the Shield of Achilles, ca. 68 CE, restored fresco from the House of Vedius Siricus, Pompeii. Source: © Buzz Ferebee / Pompeiiinpictures.com

 

B&W photo of same fresco, ca. 1900:

Old B/W photo, ca.1900, of Wall fresco, House of Vedius Siricus, ca. 68 CE, depicting Thetis at the forge of Hephaestus receiving the shield and arms for Achilles. Source: © Buzz Ferebee / Pompeiiinpictures.com

VII. Thetis at Hephaistos’ Forge Waiting to Receive Achilles’ New Weapons, Wall Fresco from Pompeii, ca. 75 – 100 CE.

Fresco on plaster depicting Thetis at Hephaestos' forge waiting to receive Achilles' new weapons. ca. 75 - 100 CE. Provenance: Pompeii (IX I, 7, triclinium e) now in the Naples National Archaeological Museum. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Fresco on plaster from Pompeii depicting Thetis at Hephaistos’ forge waiting to receive Achilles’ new weapons. ca. 75 – 100 CE.  Now in the National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy. Source: Wikimedia Commons

VIII. Hephaistos Forging Achilles’ Helmet, Coin of Septimius Severus, ca. 193-211 CE:

Caption: "MOESIA INFERIOR. Marcianopolis. Septimius Severus (AD 193-211). Æ 42mm medallion (52.54 gm, 2h). Aurelius Gallus, magistrate. ΑV K Λ CEΠ CЄVΗΡΟC Π, laureate, draped, and cuirassed bust of Severus right / V AV ΓAΛΛΟ • MA-PKIAN, Hephaestus seated to right on cippus, applying hammer to a crested Corinthian (for Achilles) helmet set on low column, faced by Athena, standing left and holding spear and shield; in exergue, OΠOΛΙΤΩΝ. Varbanov -. AMNG -. BMC -. Apparently unrecorded (Author's collection)" Source: © ancientcoinage.org 

Caption: “MOESIA INFERIOR. Marcianopolis. Septimius Severus (AD 193-211). Æ 42mm medallion (52.54 gm, 2h). Aurelius Gallus, magistrate. ΑV K Λ CEΠ CЄVΗΡΟC Π, laureate, draped, and cuirassed bust of Severus right / V AV ΓAΛΛΟ • MA-PKIAN, Hephaestus seated to right on cippus, applying hammer to a crested Corinthian (for Achilles) helmet set on low column, faced by Athena, standing left and holding spear and shield; in exergue, OΠOΛΙΤΩΝ. Varbanov -. AMNG -. BMC -. Apparently unrecorded (Ancient Coinage Author’s collection)” Source: © ancientcoinage.org

IX. Hephaestos and Cyclops Forging Achilles’ Armor, Coin of Philip I of Ancyra, Phrygia, ca. 244-249 CE:

Hephaestos and cyclops making Achilles' armor on ancient coin for Philip 1 of Ancyra, Phrygia, ca. 244-249 AD; AE 35mm 16.63g. Source: © Heritage / ancientcoinage.org

Hephaestos and cyclops making Achilles’ armor on an ancient coin for Philip 1 of Ancyra, Phrygia, ca. 244-249 CE; AE 35mm 16.63g. Source: © Heritage / ancientcoinage.org

X. Hephaistos Forging Achilles’ Armor, Coin of Philip II of Perga, Pamphylia, ca. 247-249 CE:

Hephaistos hammering out Achilles' armor depicted on a 23mm coin of Philip II of Perga, Pamphylia, ca. 247-249 CE. (Ancient Coinage Author's collection) Source: © ancientcoinage.org 

Hephaistos hammering out Achilles’ armor depicted on a 23mm coin of Philip II of Perga, Pamphylia, ca. 247-249 CE. (Ancient Coinage Author’s collection) Source: © ancientcoinage.org

XI: Hephaistos Forging Achilles’ Armor, Wall Painting by Giulio Romano, ca. 1492-1546:

Hephaistos Forging Achilles' Armor, by Giulio Romano, ca. 1492-1546, from the Sala di Troia, Palazzo Ducale, Mantua, Italy. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hephaistos Forging Achilles’ Armor, a wall painting by Giulio Romano, ca. 1492-1546, from the Sala di Troia, Palazzo Ducale, Mantua, Italy. Source: Wikimedia Commons

XII. Vulcan Hands Thetis the Shield for Achilles, Painting by Maarten van Heemskerck, ca. 1536:

Vulcan hands Thetis the shield for Achilles, by Maarten van Heemskerck, ca. 1536. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Vulcan hands Thetis the shield for Achilles, painting by Maarten van Heemskerck, ca. 1536. Source: Wikimedia Commons

XIII. Thetis at Vulcan’s Forge, Illustration from Métamorphose Figurée, ca. 1557:

Thetis at Vulcan's Forge, depicted in Book XIII of Métamorphose Figurée, ca. 1557, an illustrated copy of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Source: ovid.lib.virginia.edu

Thetis at Vulcan’s Forge, depicted in Book XIII of Métamorphose Figurée, ca. 1557, an illustrated copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Source: ovid.lib.virginia.edu

XIV. Vulcan Forging Weapons for Achilles, Illustration by Virgil Solis, ca. 1581, P. Ovidii Metamorphoses XIII, 286-295:

Vulcan forging weapons for Achilles, illustrated by Virgil Solis, ca. 1581 for P. Ovidii Metamorphosis XIII, 286-295. Source: latein-pagina.de

Vulcan forging weapons for Achilles, illustrated by Virgil Solis, ca. 1581 for P. Ovidii Metamorphoses XIII, 286-295. Source: latein-pagina.de

 

XV. Vulcan Creating Achilles’ Armor for Thetis, Etching by Antonio Tempesta, ca. 1606:

Vulcan creating Achilles armor for Thetis etching ca 1606 by Antonio Tempesta depicted in an illustrated copy of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Source: Harvard.edu (non-commercial use only)

Vulcan Creating Achilles’ Armor for Thetis, etching, ca. 1606, by Antonio Tempesta depicted in an illustrated copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Source: Harvard.edu (non-commercial use only)

 

XVI. Thetis Receives the Weapons of Achilles from Hephaestus, Painting by Anthony van Dyck, ca. 1630-1632:

Thetis receives the weapons of Achilles from Hephaestus. Painting by Anthony van Dyck, ca. 1630-1632, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Thetis Receives the Weapons of Achilles from Hephaestus. Painting by Anthony van Dyck, ca. 1630-1632, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

XVII. Thetis Receiving Achilles’ New Armor from Hephaestus, Painting by Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1630-1635:

Thetis receiving Achilles' new armor from Hephaistos, oil painting modello for a tapestry in the Life of Achilles Series by Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1635-1670. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Thetis Receiving Achilles’ New Armor from Hephaistos, oil painting modello for a tapestry in the Life of Achilles Series by Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1630-1635. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

XVIII. Thetis Watching Vulcan Forge Achilles’ New Armor, Flemish Tapestry by Unknown Artist, ca. 1625-1650:

Thetis at Vulcan's workshop, watching him forge Achilles' new armor. Flemish tapestry from Brussels by unknown tapestry artist, ca. 1625-1650. Source: Getty.edu

Thetis at Vulcan’s Workshop, Watching him Forge Achilles’ New Armor. Flemish tapestry from Brussels by an unknown tapestry artist, ca. 1625-1650. Source: Getty.edu

 

XIX. Vulcan Forging Achilles’ Armor, Overseen by Thetis, Engraving by Pierre Daret, ca. 1663-1678:

Vulcan hammering metal at his forge, overseen by Thetis in a flowing robe and pearls in her hair. Engraving by Pierre Daret de Cazeneuve, ca. 1663-1678, after an image by Jacques Blanchard. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Vulcan forging Achilles’ armor, overseen by Thetis in a flowing robe and pearls in her hair. Engraving by Pierre Daret de Cazeneuve, ca. 1663-1678, after an image by Jacques Blanchard. Source: © Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons

 

XX. Three Studies for Thetis in the Forge of Vulcan, Watching the Making of Achilles’ Armour, Drawings by Sir James Thornhill, ca. 1710:

Three studies for Thetis in the Forge of Vulcan, Watching the Making of Achilles' Armour, pen and wash over pencil on paper, by Sir James Thornhill, ca. 1710. Source: © Tate.org.uk (for non-commercial use only)

Three studies for Thetis in the Forge of Vulcan, Watching the Making of Achilles’ Armour, pen and wash over pencil on paper, by Sir James Thornhill, ca. 1710. Source: © Tate.org.uk (for non-commercial use only)

XXI. Thetis Accepting the Shield of Achilles from Vulcan, Painting by Sir James Thornhill, ca. 1710:

Thetis Accepting the Shield of Achilles from Vulcan, painting by Sir James Thornhill, ca. 1710. Source: © Tate.org.uk (for non-commercial use only)

Thetis Accepting the Shield of Achilles from Vulcan, painting by Sir James Thornhill, ca. 1710. Source: © Tate.org.uk (for non-commercial use only)

 

XXII. Thetis at Vulcan’s Forge, Tapestry Designed by Jan van Orley, ca. 1700-1725:

Thetis at Vulcan's Forge, Flemish Tapestry from Brussels designed by Jan van Orley, ca. 1700-1725. Source: Getty.edu

Thetis at Vulcan’s Forge, Flemish Tapestry from Brussels designed by Jan van Orley, ca. 1700-1725. Source: Getty.edu

XXIII. Thetis Visiting the Forge of Vulcan, Tapestry Designed by Jan van Orley, Woven by G., P., & F. van der Borcht, ca. 1740-1742:

Thetis visiting the forge of Vulcan, Flemish tapestry from Brussels designed by Jan van Orley and woven by Gaspard, Pierre, and Franz van der Borcht, ca. 1740-1742. Source: Getty.edu

Thetis Visiting the Forge of Vulcan, Flemish tapestry from Brussels designed by Jan van Orley and woven of wool and silk by Gaspard, Pierre, and Franz van der Borcht, ca. 1740-1742. Source: Getty.edu

 

XXIV. Vulcan Displaying Achilles’ New Armor to Thetis, Wall Painting by Felice Giani, ca. 1802:

Vulcan Displaying Achilles' New Armor to Thetis, depicted on a wall painting in the Hall of Fame or Achilles Gallery, Palazzo Milzetti, Faenza, Italy, by Felice Giani, ca. 1802. Source: liceotorricelli.it

Vulcan Displaying Achilles’ New Armor to Thetis, depicted on a wall painting in the Hall of Fame or Achilles Gallery, Palazzo Milzetti, Faenza, Italy, by Felice Giani, ca. 1802. Source: liceotorricelli.it

XXV. Vulcan at Work on the Armour of Achilles, Painting by William Heath Robinson, ca. 1872-1944.

"Vulcan at Work on the Armour of Achilles," by William Heath Robinson, ca. 1872-1944. Source: sofi01 / Flickr (for non-commercial use only)

Vulcan at Work on the Armour of Achilles, by William Heath Robinson, ca. 1872-1944. Source: © sofi01 / Flickr (for non-commercial use only)

 

XXVI. Hephaistos and the Cyclops Forging Achilles’ Armor, Greek Postage Stamp, ca. 1969:

Hephaistos and the cyclops forging Achilles' armor, depicted on a Greek postage stamp, ca. 1969. Source: Hellenicaworld.com

Hephaistos and the cyclops forging Achilles’ armor, depicted on a Greek postage stamp, ca. 1969. Source: HellenicaWorld.com

__________

[Top image source and credits: Thetis Receiving Achilles’ New Armor from Hephaistos, oil painting modello for a tapestry in the Life of Achilles Series by Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1630-1635. Source: Wikimedia Commons]

 

5 thoughts on “Hephaestus Forging the Shield of Achilles in Art Through the Ages

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