The Erechtheion, though not the most interesting of the building complex in the Acropolis, is a remarkable world-famous impressive construction for its Porch of the Caryatids. Nowadays, it remains as one of the most distinctive buildings from antiquity that we can still see, though thoroughly renovated and with important changes.
The Erechtheion (also indistinctively found as Erechtheum) has a linguistic origin (Ἐρέχθειον) that, perhaps, got to do with the Ionic styled temple being dedicated –among others– to a legendary mythological hero called Erechthonius.
The construction of this marble temple is thought to have taken place between 421 –started by (probably) Mnesicles– and 406 BC, being its last architect, Philocles, and it is situated on the north side of the Acropolis. The other deities the building was dedicated to were Athena, patron goddess of ancient Athens, and Poseidon, god of the sea. The temple faces east and its entrance is lined with six long Ionic columns. To the north and west the wall of the temple drops dramatically to almost twice the altitude of the front and south sides.
Part of the functions to which this temple was designed were to help accommodate some of the religious ceremonies taking place at the Acropolis, such as those connected with the Panathenaic Procession. Originally planned so as not to disturb other altars on the area such as the sacred shrine of Poseidon (Erechtheus) and Hephaestus/Hephaistos; other shrines (to hold holy relics) that needed to be accommodated included the the Palladion, which was a xoanon or wooden effigy of Pallas Athena, fallen from heaven – not man-made- that Odysseus and Diomedes stole from Troy, sacred olive tree, the Erechtheian Sea, the tomb of another legendary character, Kekrops, whose tomb is under the south porch, that is to say, the Porch of the Caryatids, and finally the sanctuary of Pandrosus, Herse and Aglarus, daughters of the mythical king Kekrops.
Six Ionic columns on the eastern facade (6.58 m tall including base and capital) present the principal entrance (4.88 m x 2.42 m). The temple is unusual in that it incorporates two porches; one at the northwest corner which is supported by six Ionic columns, while below its floor the Athenians pointed at the mark of the thunderbolt sent by Zeus to kill the legendary King Erechteus; and one at the south-west corner which is supported by six massive female statues, the famous Caryatids (Korai or maidens) that are represented in this blog in many different places. It goes without saying that such beautiful pictures as those of the Porch of the Caryatids remind us of the powerful gorgeous looking similar statues that we have since been seeing in lots of museum throughout the world, contemplating their beauty and stylish shapes that represent the proportions of man according to the minds of the ancient Greeks, which has pervade our own western taste when comparing what is beautiful and elegant with that which is not. Its casual standing supporting on their heads the weight of the porch is simply perfect. Adding to this magnificent view that we can contemplate when walking through the Acropolis, it is fair to say that none of the present statues are originals but replicas; those original Caryatids –save but one which is in the British Museum- were removed to the newly open Acropolis Museum to be exhibited and protected from the wear of time. (As an afterthought, why then do the Greeks want the Elgin Marbles back? To exhibit them in their museum, as the English do in theirs, or to put them back in place in their original places in the Parthenon? It’s a rhetorical question).
Their clinging Doric clothes (peplos, himation) and intricately plaited hair are rendered in fine detail. Their bold stance and the firm set of the straight standing leg give the impression that the task of bearing the weight of the porch entablature and roof is effortless. Rather cleverly, the straight leg also creates folds in their clothing remarkably similar to the flutes on an ordinary Ionic column. Originally, the figures raised slightly their robe with one hand and held shallow libation vessels (phialai) with the other. Several interpretations about the Caryatids have been put forth. The most convincing one supports the view that they constituted the visible portion of the grave of Kekrops and were the choephoroi who paid tribute to the glorious dead.
The precise original plan of the building has been difficult to reconstruct due to the changes made to it over the centuries. In any case, the asymmetrical nature of the building also presents a rather confused architectural assembly in stark contrast to the precise symmetry of its neighbor, the Parthenon. The situation is not helped by the markedly uneven slope of the foundation rock; indeed the floor of the building is over three metres lower at the northern end in respect to the eastern side. However, certain elements are agreed upon by scholars. The cella measures some 22.22 m x 11.16 m and is divided into four chambers, of which the most eastern and largest chamber housed the diiepetes, the olivewood statue of Athena Polias, clothed in the specially woven robe which was carried in the Panathenaic procession, held in the city every four years. In front of the statue stood a gold lamp designed by Kallimachos which had a bronze palm shaped chimney and an asbestos wick which burned continuously. The sacred serpent (oikouros ophis), which was believed to be an incarnation of Erechtheus, dwelt in one of the western chambers and acted as guardian to the city. Well looked after, it was regularly fed with honey cakes.
The exterior of the temple incorporated a continuous 63 cm high Ionic frieze decorated (presumably) with images of mythological characters and gods, as well as heroes and mortals, representing scenes of both the ancient cults and ancient mythology, as did the north prostasis. The theme of the frieze is not known, but its form was unusual in that white Parian marble figures, separately carved in relief were attached to a flat background of dark gray Eleusinian limestone. Traditionally, a frieze would present vividly painted figures on a monochrome painted background. From ancient accounting inscriptions, and testimonies from Plutarch we can safely deduce that the entire building was lavishly decorated with wall frescoes, gilded rosettes, and an array of colored features and low relief sculptures. It is believed that, as in the case of the Parthenon, Phidias was in charge of the sculptures of the temple and frieze.
The eastern part of the Temple was dedicated to Athena, whilst the western part was dedicated to local hero Boutes, Hephaistos and other gods and heroes. Thus, the Erechtheion was a temple with multiple functions, housing older and newer cults, and the site of the ‘Sacred Tokens’, the marks made by Poseidon’s trident when he struck with his trident during his contest with Athena, and the olive tree, the gift of Athena to the city of Athens.
As a final point to bear in mind, we can add that its later history –like that of similar classical buildings- has seen many changes, some fortunate and most of them, an unsolicited outcome from its original design and purpose. We’ll see more of it in future posts.
Jesús L. Vieites