Peter Paul Rubens, Thetis Dipping the Infant Achilles into the River Styx, 1630-1635, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, oil painting on canvas
In Thetis Dipping the Infant Achilles into the River Styx by Peter Paul Rubens, the sea nymph Thetis is pictured dipping her son, Achilles, into the River Styx. As one river of the Underworld, The River Styx also separates the realms of the living and the dead. Holding the torch and illuminating the act is one of the Fates, Clotho. Clotho spun the thread of life, and determined who--gods or mortals--was saved or put to death. Towards the edges of the painting are two caryatids representing Hades and Persephone, the rulers of the Underworld. Cerberus, the three-headed watchdog of the Underworld, is also pictured near the bottom. In the background, Charon, responsible for ferrying souls of the deceased, is seen transporting passengers across the river. Acting as a sort of frame, a swarm of bats ominously surround the scene. The somewhat rough way Thetis is holding her infant son by the ankle seems to challenge conventional ideas about femininity and motherhood; although, this rough handling was only because Thetis simply wanted to ensure her son’s survival.
Thetis was originally pursued by both Zeus and Poseidon, but lost interest when they found out she would bear a son mighty and heroic enough to potentially overthrow them--especially Zeus. He then arranged for her to marry and bear children with Peleus, a mortal. Thetis heard from an oracle that her son would be doomed to die young in battle, or in “...the first flowering of his youth” (Roth). Knowing this, she plunged her infant son into the River Styx to make him immortal. However, by holding him by his ankle, that part was not dipped in the water, leaving that spot vulnerable--the proverbial Achilles heel. Until his death, he fought tenaciously and was regarded as a mighty hero. Eventually, Achilles is struck with a poison arrow in this very spot during the Trojan War, leading to his death.
Rubens displays a thorough understanding of the myth by including several details about the Underworld such as Cerberus and Charon in the distant background. He also demonstrates masterful storytelling through vivid and rich colors, incredible linework, and originality; Clotho is originally not part of the myth, but is painted alongside Thetis to showcase her responsibilities and impact. The inclusion of Clotho seems to demonstrate that she is overseeing and actively spinning a thread of life by ensuring Achilles’ survival. Including these impactful yet untraditional aspects shows a great understanding of the myth and greater Greek mythology by Rubens.
The oil painting Thetis Dipping the Infant Achilles into the River Styx by artist Peter Paul Rubens is one of eight sketches made by Rubens from around 1630-1635 (Anderson). The artist Peter Paul Reubens was a very popular Flemish artist that lived from 1577 to 1640 who was known for his portrayals of religious and mythological subjects. In his lifetime he was highly sought after by royals and monarchs for commissioned pieces of work (The National Gallery, London) The painting was made by Rubens as preparation for a series of four tapestries depicting the God Achilles’ life. Although little is known about the way that the body of work was commissioned, Peter Paul Reubens’ Thetis Dipping the Infant Achilles into the River Styx has left a legacy on the world by popularizing the hero Achilles through its marvelous storytelling.
Reubens demonstrates great understanding of the heroic myth of Achilles in this oil painting on canvas. The child, Achilles, is being dipped headfirst into the River of Styx by his mother, Thetis, while Clotho, one of the Fates, illuminates the action while ominous bats fly above them. In the background, Charon, the ferryman of the river, is bringing souls across the river Styx and into Hades. The pillars that surround the scene depict Hades and Persephone, the rulers of the Underworld, and the three headed dog, Cerberus, placed at the bottom of the frame allude to the location of the scene being on the river Styx (Anderson).
What is interesting about this piece is the supporting details that demonstrate deep understanding of the myth of Achilles. Reubens “depended on both original texts [mainly Homer’s The Iliad] and Renaissance handbooks for details of the narrative, but also relied on his own intuition to produce designs that stress both the heroic and human sides of Achilles’s character” (Nelson). This is made very clear in this piece with the artistic addition of Clotho and the ominous bats. According to what we learned in class, we know that the reason Achilles was dipped into the river was to make him immortal to escape the prophecy that he was going to die at a young age. We also know from class that his Achilles tendon was exposed during the process and that exposure eventually led to his demise early in life. (Morford). Clotho and the bats are not typically included in the portrayal of this portion of his myth but reference the overall myth. Clotho’s appearance and illumination of the act reference the fact that Thesis is trying to escape fate and the prophecy, but that she will not be successful as fate is inescapable. This idea is enhanced with the bats flying above who foreshadow the death of Achilles that is soon to come. This inclusion shows Reuben’s deep understanding of the myth and will help in the popularization of Achilles’ myth.
The legacy that Reuben leaves with this painting is the popularization of Achilles’ myth. Reuben is considered the most influential artist of Flemish Baroque art ever. Reuben created 1,403 pieces of artwork pertaining to Achilles in a series known as Life of Achilles. His work was highly sought after by the wealthy during his time and hung in amazing venues and later museums (Vail). His association to the myth of Achilles allowed the artwork to remain highly preserved throughout time and carried on the myth with it. Additionally, the series was so highly preserved and demonstrated the Flemish tradition of tapestry making so well that there are exhibits of the artwork in museums today that will continue the myth of Achilles into the future (Vail).
To conclude, Peter Paul Rubens’ painting, Thetis Dipping the Infant Achilles into the River Styx, has left his legacy on the world by demonstrating great knowledge of the heroic myth of the god Achilles through his artwork and his influence. The precision to detail and inclusion of various characters in the piece makes for an overall amazing and thoughtful painting and a great first installation to a series about Achilles’ life.
In Peter Paul Ruben’s Thetis Dipping the Infant Achilles into the River Styx, the Greek goddess of the sea and one of the Nereids, Thetis is shown dipping her infant son Achilles into the River of Styx. Known as the river of hate, the River of Styx is one of the five rivers in the Underworld. Painted between 1630-1635, Rubens’ oil painting was done on an oak panel. Rubens was known for his ability to paint color, especially in his mythological paintings (Anderson).
After hearing Achilles was destined to die young in battle, Rubens depicts Thetis’ attempt to make him immortal. Thetis holds him by his foot and dips him into the Styx. Since his foot was not dipped into the water, this became his vulnerable spot, known as the Achilles heel. Achilles’ vulnerable heel is ultimately his fatal downfall during the Trojan War, when Apollo helps direct an arrow to his heel, killing him.
Poseidon and Zeus were infatuated with Thetis, but we were warned by Prometheus that she was destined to bear a son mightier than his father which would lead to his ultimate downfall. Learning this, they both avoided mating with her. Thetis then married a mortal and grandson of Zeus Peleus and bore Achilles, who became a great man of war and survived many battles. Achilles did indeed become mightier than his father (Morford) In Homer’s Iliad, Achilles is portrayed as a great warrior with superhuman strength. One of the greatest heroes of the Iliad, Achilles had his flaws. Achilles is very prideful and driven by his pursuit of glory. His thirst for glory can be seen when he says, "...I'd rather slave on earth for another man, some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive than rule down here over all the breathless dead” (Homer).
The painting depicts Thetis dipping Achilles into the river between two caryatids representing Hades and Persephone. Next to Thetis, holding a torch, is one of the Fates Clotho, assisting Thetis by illuminating the scene. Near the bottom of the painting, we see Cerberus, the three-headed hound of Hades. In the background, the ferryman, Charon, is transporting dead people across the river. Thetis Dipping the Infant Achilles into the River Styx is the first of four tapestry commissions made by Rubens. One of Achilles’ main known narratives is the invulnerability he gained when his mother Thetis, dipped him into the River of Styx. Rubens not only does a great job depicting the scene but also representing the Underworld. Through his display of color, Ruben does a great job portraying the early life of Achilles, which was his main narrative.
In Peter Paul Rubens’s Thetis Dipping the Infant Achilles into the River Styx, the goddess of the waters, Thetis, is plunging young Achilles into Styx which is a river with the power to separate life from death. On either side of the painting, two caryatids, representing Hades (Pluto) and Persephone (Proserpina or Proserpine), are shown. Clotho, one of the three fates, is holding a torch to illuminate the process. At the bottom part of the painting, Cerberus, the triple-headed watchdog of the underworld, is lying there. Interestingly, some subtle details are included in this masterpiece. In the background, Charon, the ferryman of Hades, is ferrying his passengers across the river. With many details included, this painting could really be a good source for people to acquire related information and stories.
Thetis is one of the 50 Nereids and daughters of the ancient sea god Nereus. She is pursued and eventually married to Peleus who is the king of Phthia and grandson of Jupiter(Zeus). According to Roth, The mother of Achilles, Thetis, a sea nymph, knew the prophecy about her son, “he will end his days in the first flowering of his youth” (Roth). In an effort to avoid his son’s death, many strategies are employed. She dips his young son into the River Styx. As a result, his son will be both immortal and invulnerable. As Thetis holds her son by his heel, it is not immersed by the water of Styx. Eventually, a poisoned arrow shot by Paris, the son of King Priam, hits Achilles’ heel and ends the life of this great hero.
There is no doubt that this painting is a masterpiece from a real master. However, the thing that impressed me the most is the topic chosen by the painter. When it comes to Achilles, the first thing that is likely to come into our minds is a picture of a strong man wearing superior armor. The awareness that this hero was also a young kid attended by his mother is somehow absent. Fortunately, Peter Paul Rubens offers us a vivid picture of this scenario with his outstanding skill. Aside from this, his detail-depicting strategies are also impressive. Charon and Cerberus may not be an indispensable section of this topic about the origin of Achilles’ heel. However, the fact that they are a part of the underworld is also undeniable. The inclusion of these two characters makes this painting an excellent medium for storytelling.
Anderson, Robert. THETIS Dipping ACHILLES into the River Styx, ringlingdocents.org/thetis.htm.
Homer, and Robert Fitzgerald. The Odyssey. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.
Morford, Mark P O., et al. Classical Mythology. 11th ed., Oxford Univ.- Press, 2019.
Morford Mark P O., et al. “Chapter 19: The Trojan Saga And The Iliad .” Classical Mythology, Oxford University Press, 2019.
Nelson, Kristi. Historians of Netherlandish Art Reviews, hnanews.org/hnar/reviews/peter-paul-rubens-life-achilles/.
Roth, Sharon. THETIS DIPPING ACHILLES INTO THE RIVER STYX,
The National Gallery, London. “Peter Paul Rubens.” The National Gallery, www.nationalgallery.org.uk/artists/peter-paul-rubens.
Vail, Kathleen. “The Life of ACHILLES - Epic Tapestries by Peter Paul Rubens.” Medium, Medium, 15 May 2018, email@example.com/the-life-of-achilles-epic-tapestries-by-peter-paul-rubens-dd659cb9183e.