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
It is due to the fact that the Parthenon was dedicated to the goddess Athena that it has sometimes been referred to as the Temple of Minerva, i.e. the Roman counterpart for Athena, particularly during the Romanticism.
The real use of the Parthenon was not that of a temple proper but of a treasury, in which the riches, offerings and gold of the Delian League were stored (even Thucydides reported Pericles’ words talking about the statue as a gold reserve that was easily removable) The Parthenon never hosted the cult of Athena Polias, yet the colossal statute of the goddess, which was bathed in the sea and to which was presented the peplos, was an olivewood xoanon, located at an older altar on the northern side of the Acropolis. After all it was normal to use the ancient Greek temples as store houses to keep treasures got in war against hostile peoples.
As been previously mentioned, in mid-5th century BC, when the Acropolis became the seat of the Delian League and Athens was the true representative of what democracy and politics of its time were, Pericles was the mastermind behind a far-reaching building project that would last the entire second half of the century. The most important buildings visible on the Acropolis today — the Parthenon, the Propylaia, the Erechtheion and the temple of Athena Nike— were erected during this period.
Being the architects Ictinos and Callicrates the engineering heads in the construction of the Parthenon, the general supervision work was put in Phidias’ hands, a famous, talented, and skilled sculptor who took the responsibility to create the greatest sculptures that were to awe the whole world. Though works began in 447 BC, and the building was substantially completed by 432, but work on the decorations continued until at least 431. A great amount of the budget would be dedicated to pay for the costs of purchasing and moving the pentelic marble from its original site at Mt Pentelicus, 16 km from Athens, to the building site in the Acropolis.
The Parthenon survived as a temple dedicated to Athena for nearly one thousand years until Theodosius II decreed in 435 AD that all pagan temples in the Byzantine Empire be closed.
On the rest of the history of the Parthenon, we will be looking at it through different aspects and posts.
The Parthenon (Παρθενών), the most magnificent and finest of the buildings in the Acropolis, dedicated to the goddess Athena Parthenos, the patron of Athenas, was a temple of classical characteristics and one that represented best, both aesthetically and socially the Classical Greece conception of democracy in the times of Pericles. Built between 447 –when Athenas was at the peak of its power- and 438 BC, as part of the greater Periclean building project boosted by this Greek politician, this so-called Periclean Parthenon (Parthenon III) replaced an earlier marble temple (Parthenon II), begun after the victory at the battle of Marathon at approximately 490 BC and destroyed by the Persians in 480 BC. This temple had replaced the very first Parthenon (Parthenon I) of c. 570 BC. The Periklean Parthenon was designed by architects Ictinos and Callicrates, while the sculptor Pheidias supervised the entire building program and conceived the temple’s sculptural decoration and chryselephantine statue of Athena. For a time, it served as the treasury of the Delian League, which later became the Athenian Empire.
The first instance in which Parthenon definitely refers to the entire building is found in the writings of the 4th century BC orator Demosthenes. In 5th-century building accounts, the structure is simply called ho naos (“the temple”). The architects Ictinos and Callicrates are said to have called the building Hekatompedos (“the hundred footer”) in their lost treatise on Athenian architecture, and, in the 4th century and later, the building was referred to as the Hekatompedos or the Hekatompedon as well as the Parthenon; the 1st-century-AD writer Plutarch referred to the building as the Hekatompedon Parthenon.
The Parthenon, thought to be the zenith of the Doric order, is a double peripteral temple with several unique and innovative architectural features. The temple proper is divided into pronaos, cella and opisthodomos, with a separate room at the west end, and is surrounded by a pteron with eight columns on each of the short sides and seventeen columns on the long ones. The columns had the same width as those of Parthenon II, so that use was made of the material prepared for it, even though the new temple was much broader than its predecessor. The interior demonstrates an innovative approach to both new and old elements: inside the cella a double pi-shaped colonnade established a background for the gold and ivory statue of Athena Parthenos, which showed the goddess in full armour carrying Nike to the Athenians in her right hand. The west room, where the city’s treasures were kept, had four Ionic columns. The two-sloped wooden roof had marble tiles, marble palmette-shaped false antefixes along the edge of its long sides and false spouts in the shape of lion heads at the corners. Its decorative sculptures are considered some of the high points of Greek art. These marble statues adorned the corners of the pediments and large, ornate palmettes their apex. The pediments were decorated with sculptural compositions inspired from the life of the goddess Athena. The east pediment depicted the birth of the goddess, who sprang from the head of her father, Zeus, before an assembly of the Olympian gods, while the west pediment showed Athena and Poseidon disputing for the possession of the city of Athens before the gods, heroes and mythical kings of Attica. Ninety-two metopes alternating with triglyphs were placed above the epistyle of the outer colonnade and under the architrave. All of them were adorned with reliefs, the earliest sculptures of the Parthenon. Their themes were derived from legendary battles: the Gigantomachy was depicted on the eastern side, the Trojan War on the northern side, the Amazonomachy on the western side and the Centauromachy on the southern side. The frieze, an element of the Ionic order, brilliantly added to this Doric temple along the top of the cella, pronaos and opisthodomos, depicted the splendid procession of the Panathenaia, the greatest socio-religious festival of Athens in honour of her goddess patron.
Without any doubt, it is one of the world’s greatest cultural monuments and one that is surrounded by controversial issues nowadays.
A great production by the BBC. A must!
Did you know that…
Looting of the Old Summer Palace by Anglo-French forces in 1860 during the Second Opium War.
…the Old Summer Palace in Beijing (Yuanming Yuan (“Gardens of Perfect Brightness”) was totally destroyed by Anglo-French troops in 1860, and although the French commander C. Cousin-Montauban assured his British counterpart, James Hope Grant, that “nothing had been touched”, there was extensive looting by French and British soldiers on October 18, following instructions by Lord Elgin, the British High Commissioner to China during the Second Opium War and son of the famous Lord Elgin who took and brought to England of the Parthenon Sculptures?
Major General Charles G. Gordon (later known as Chinese Gordon, Gordon Pasha, and Gordon of Khartoum), who was then a 27 year old captain in the Anglo-French expeditionary force commented that,
‘You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt. It made one’s heart sore to burn them; in fact, these places were so large, and we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully’