One of the most celebrated features of early Versailles was the Grotto of Tethys (often spelled Thetis), adjacent to the northern side of the palace. Initially built as a simple water tower, the pavilion was redesigned in 1665 around the theme of the descent of Apollo, the sun god, into the sea at the end of his daily procession across the heavens. Located close to Louis XIV’s bedroom, the Grotto allegorized the hard-working king’s retreat to Versailles for rest and recreation. It also echoed the Apollo Fountain at the opposite end of the gardens, where the god is shown rising out of the sea on his horse-drawn chariot. The Grotto’s whimsical, under-the-sea interior was decorated with precious stones, shells, mirrors, mosaics, and masks. It was not completed until 1676, when three marble groups were placed in the bays at the back.
Despite its great success, the Grotto was demolished in 1684 to make way for the north wing of the expanding palace. Only its marble sculptures were preserved and transferred to the gardens. Their original setting can be envisioned thanks to a set of twenty detailed engravings published in the 1670s, of which nine are displayed on the walls of this alcove.