Achilles and Penthesilea
Penthesilia, daughter of Otrere and Ares, accidentally killed Hippolyte and was purified by Priam. In battle she slew many, and amongst them Machaon, and was afterwards herself killed by Achilles, who fell in love with the Amazon after her death and slew Thersites for jeering at him.
This is an excerpt of Pseudo-Apollodorus’ Epitome of the Bibliotheke. It describes the scene depicted on a 6th century BC amphora by Exekias, and after much deliberation, the scene I attempted to recreate on a clay plate.
This story is so beautiful and meaningful, that it captivated me when I first learned of it in a Greek art and archaeology course. And for its beauty to be captured on this amphora meant all that much more.
To fall in love with someone at the very moment you destroy that person is one of the most tragic occurrences possible in humanity. Yet, it seems so fitting for Godlike Achilles. He was RAGE. He was consumed by it and exuded it from his very being. Only he could fall in love at the very moment that epitomizes rage – the kill.
You can see that, although the mortal blow has been struck, there is something being shared between the two. Something in their gaze that is not representative of two battling warriors, but of two in love, too late.
The beautiful and powerful Amazon queen is shown in all of her physical and emotional vulnerability by her pushed back helmet, lowered posture and upward gaze. In contrast, the dark and foreboding Achilles attacks downward on her. Yet, in his eye you sense a sort of reluctance, pity and guilt that comes with murdering your love.
In this one moment, we can sense an entire alternate outcome – one where Achilles and Penthesilea throw down their arms and leave Ilium together for the others to fight over. This could never happen though, because of who they are. An Amazon must fight, and Achilles’ rage is a central theme in the Iliad. It was more than just bad timing that kept these two from being lovers.
I was recently speaking to my mother about this story and painting and she lent me some remarkable insight that comes with age and seemed so apt. “Love kills…but from death comes life”. This story can be considered an allegory for love. There is no stronger force known to man. Love can build and nurture and destroy people and relationships. It is from this building we get life and joy, and from this destruction we receive the ultimate pain. In order to create life and truly live life, we need love. However, this love can be laborious.