Phiale with Thetis and the armor of Achilles
Period: Late 5th - early 4th century B.C.
Material: Gilded silver
Dimensions: Diameter: 20.3 cm
Ex-European private collection, early 1980s; Ward and Co. New York, USA, 1990; US private collection, New York, acquired in 1990.
Conditions: Complete and very carefully restored; minor repairs. Gilding largely preserved, as well as the decorative incisions
Probably hammered from a single sheet of silver, and embellished with parcel-gilt (figural decoration, omphalos) and plant motifs in low relief, this vessel is of the finest and rarest examples of an omphalos phiale that can be dated to the Classical period.
This vessel is of the finest and rarest examples of an omphalos phiale that can be dated to the
Classical period and was likely hammered from a single sheet of silver, and embellished with
parcel-gilt (figural decoration, omphalos) and ornamental motifs in low relief. Mainly used to make libations, this form of vessel often appears in contemporary iconography in scenes of mythological nature or representing a warrior leaving for a military campaign (the phiale, a shallow drinking vessel, contained the wine offered to the deity, which had to be poured on the ground or upon an altar). The refined workmanship enhances the piece, made even more remarkable by the highly detailed mythological scene that decorates the vessel.
The omphalos is encircled by a frieze of palmettes alternating with open lotuses framed by a stylized kyma. The figural scene shows a very famous subject (known as a thiasos or a sea parade), largely widespread in Greek iconography from the 4th century B.C. especially: the main figure here is Thetis, giving her son Achilles his new armor forged by the most gifted of all craftsmen, the god Hephaestus.
According to the mythological narration, Achilles (who, with Heracles, is the archetypal Greek hero) had lent the weapons that he took to the Trojan War to his friend Patroclus, for him to fight beneath the city walls of Troy. But after the death of Patroclus by the hand of Hector, Achilles decided to resume the battle and to defy Priam’s son. Thetis comes at that moment and, since she cannot convince her son to refrain from avenging the death of his best friend, she gives him a fine new armor. A sea deity (she is one of the Nereids, the daughters of the sea god Nereus, and therefore lives under the sea), Thetis can be identified by her crown and especially by her mount, a seahorse (her sisters ride dolphins). In her hands, she holds a spear, and a shield decorated with an impressive gorgoneion. Two other Nereids carry the helmet and the armor, while a third Nereid simply holds a ribbon. The figures are dressed in loose chitons that flutter in the breeze, emphasizing the speed of the sea creatures that swim by leaping on the waves of the sea. As usual, Achilles is not represented in the thiasos.
This episode has a long literary tradition, already related in the Iliad of Homer (Books 18-19) in a famous excerpt in which the poet describes at length the armor forged by Hephaestus. Iconographically, this nautical subject matter was particularly suited for long and regular friezes, such as the scenes depicted on mosaics and in the minor arts, on potteries or, like here, on luxury tableware intended for the highest classes of society.
The remarkable toreutic work can be compared to the beautiful contemporary gilded silver vessels uncovered in northern Greece and in Thrace, but certainly produced by Greek craftsmen.
Die alten Zivilisationen Bulgariens: Das Gold der Thraker, Basel, 2007, nos. 125d-e.
MARAZOV I. (ed.), Ancient Gold: The Wealth of Thracian Treasures from the Republic of Bulgaria, New York, 1998, nos. 64, 77 and 116.
On Hellenistic toreutics, see:
OLIVER A., Silver for the Gods: 800 Years of Greek and Roman Silver, Toledo, 1977.
PFROMMER M., Metalwork from the Hellenized East, Malibu, 1993.