The Appearance of Achilles’ Shield is a Mystery
The appearance of Achilles’ new shield is an ancient mystery, a wonderful topic of debate that has fascinated the imaginations of Homer’s audiences from its first recital. Clearly relishing the interlude between Achilles’ grief at the loss of his beloved comrade Patroklos and the re-entry of Achilles into battle, Homer intensifies the dramatic buildup while lingering to elaborate on the dazzling shield as Hephaistos is forging it.
In Homer’s Iliad: The Shield of Memory, Kenneth Atchity explains, “In a larger sense, the shield of Achilles is a suspension of the narrative momentum, a respite from the brutal reality of the battle (between Hektor’s slaying of Patroklos and Achilles’ of Hektor). In this sense the shield’s appearance is… a kind of respite, a time of re-creative detachment, from the pressures of reality.”1
Atchity continues, “The image of the shield widens the perspective of the poem, universalizing its visionary scope.” He notes, “Including many individuals and several collectives but refusing to give them specific names, the shield expresses the essentially–or typically, or ideally–human.”2
As the pivotal device ensuring Achilles’ immortality, it is this universality depicted on Achilles’ shield that accounts for the shield’s immortality, as well. Emblazoned in human memory from Homer’s first narration forward, this glorious creation is, as prophesied by its creator, Hephaistos, “a wonder to behold.”
Perhaps considering it impossible “to behold,” Atchity maintains, “Excavations and reconstructions will never give us more than we have now of Homer’s masterful shield. Anything more than the words would be too weak.”3
Although “to behold” Hephaistos’ wondrous creation may be interpreted figuratively, there is no compelling reason for constraining our creative imaginations to thoughts and words only. Atchity, in good company with Stobart, Hogan, and Webster, may be forgiven for imagining that a literal, artistic interpretation of Achilles’ shield is impossible, yet many renowned artists throughout history have offered wondrous works of art inspired by Homer’s description.
Several images in the public domain (and quite a few more to be found with a simple google search) testify to an amazing diversity of artistic recreations of the immortal shield of Achilles.
Historic Recreations of Achilles’ Shield
Perhaps the most famous recreation of Achilles’ shield is the beautiful masterpiece created in 1821 by John Flaxman, commissioned by Philip Rundell and presented to King George IV on the occasion of the King’s coronation banquet.
According to the Royal Collection, additional silver-gilt versions of Flaxman’s shield were produced in 1821/2, including one for the Duke of York which is now in the Huntington Collection in San Marino, California.
Reportedly a “keen Greek scholar,” it is considered likely that Flaxman relied on the description of Achilles’ shield in Homer’s Iliad from Pope’s translation of 1715-20 for his design.
We might also wonder if Flaxman was likely inspired by an interesting image on page 171 of Volume 5 of The Iliad of Homer Translated by Pope, published in 1720.
The 1720 original of Pope’s translation is held by the British Library.Angelo Monticelli (1778-1837), an Italian neoclassical painter famous for painting the curtains of La Scala Theater in Milan and Pesaro’s theater, also produced a noteworthy recreation of Achilles’ shield.
Monticelli’s artistic interpretation appeared in the publication, Le Costume Ancien ou Moderne, circa 1820.
Michael Lahanas, a prodigious scholar of Greek history outlines these and other examples of artistic renderings of the shield of Achilles created in recent centuries on his comprehensive website.
Another interesting Greek website, produced by Maria Akritidou and Afentoulidis Basilica, offers a comprehensive e-Learning platform for students and teachers studying the shield of Achilles according to Homer’s Iliad (Although written completely in Greek, google translates this highly recommended website fairly well).
Explore the Shield of Achilles in Greater Detail
In the following sections (see below), I offer my own humble attempt to reconstruct Achilles’ shield. These images are created on individual thin sheets of brass, inscribed with a stylus and painted with enamel to match, as literally as possible, the original Greek words of Homer’s description in Book 18, lines 483-607.
Bronze, silver, and tin, as well as specifically mentioned colors, are painted. Unpainted brass represents inlaid gold. Each brass sheet was then trimmed and assembled on a multiple-ply heavy board convex base, covered with a lightweight synthetic suede fabric. For good measure, and according to Homer’s specification, a shoulder strap of silver is also attached.
The resulting life size shield has been professionally photographed in whole and by individual scenes. Additionally, I have digitally enhanced these images for online publication.
In the following pages, you are offered intimate glimpses of ancient Greek life, accompanied by my personal translation of Homer’s original description of each scene on Achilles’ shield.
Artistic motif information relevant to each image is also provided via text links to the References page. These reference notes offer examples of historic Greek artifacts with similar motifs from which I based my designs, as well as other scene-related information.
The Appearance of Achilles’ Shield Quick Link Menu:
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(Author’s Note: This content is significantly updated and expanded in my new book, Reconstructing the Shield of Achilles, now available on Amazon.com!)
1. K. Atchity, Homer’s Iliad: The Shield of Memory (Amazon Kindle, 2014), Chapter 8, location 3782.
2. ibid. Chapter 4, location 2207.
3. ibid. Introduction, location 114.