Erechtheum

View from inside the Parthenon. The Erechtheum was built over a long period of time, since construction was halted during the Peace of Nikias (starting in 421 BC, this was a brief period of respite during the Peloponnesian War) and resumed in 410 BC. The temple was probably completed by 395.

The Erechtheum is a very complicated structure, but it has three main parts: the main section of the temple, the north porch, and the Porch of the Caryatids. The main section is again divided into an eastern and a western cella. In the foreground is the terrace wall of the old temple.

The east cella, the large area behind the six Ionic columns, was dedicated to the worship of Athena Polias. The Panathenaic Procession terminated here, where the olive wood cult statue of Athena was draped in the peplos offered by the Arrephoroi, elite young Athenian girls hand-picked for this sacred duty.

The terrace wall of the Old Temple of Athena is in the foreground. The building is so difficult to figure out because it spreads over and beyond shrine areas and must rearrange itself. A good example is how the SW corner of the Caryatid Porch lies atop the Grave of Cecrops, access to which is gained only via a secret passageway. Do the Caryatids guard his grave?

Particularly complicated is the west cella, accessible by way of both porches and home to shrines to many deities: altars to Poseidon, Butes and Hephaestus, and a snake pit dedicated to the chthonic gods. A 32 foot beam ran across its length; there are cuttings in the wall for a supporting strut, and rosettes decorated these walls. The ledge above the door to the Caryatid porch held Kallimachos’ famous gold palm-tree lamp.

View of the Erechtheum from the SW. Pausanias (1.27.2) perpetuates a mystical truth about Athena’s tree: the day after the Persians burned the Acropolis in 480 BC, he claims, the tree produced a new shoot four feet long.

Tradition has it that this olive tree can trace its roots back to the tree Athena originally planted in her winning bid for Attica. Although the tree was cut down by numerous invaders (e.g., Sulla in 86 BC, the Turks in 1456), each time a sprig from the original was saved and replanted. The last replanting was made in 1952 by members of the American School, who saved the tree from oblivion after Germans occupying the Acropolis cut it down in 1942.

Near the north porch of the Erechtheum is the grave of Erechtheus, mythical king of Athens. He is identified with Erichthonius, who is said to be the son of Gaia and Hephaestus (and reared by Athena), and is later associated with Poseidon. Thus the temple was from the beginning sacred to both Athena and Poseidon, as well as to Hephaestus, father of Erichthonius, and Butes, brother of Erechtheus. Outside this entrance also was the altar of Zeus Thyechoos, “Zeus Supreme,” to whom nothing that breathed was offered – not even wine!

The columns of the North Porch sport a guillache pattern and held glass inserts of four colors. A hole in the floor allows one to see the marks of Poseidon’s trident, and an open space in the ceiling allows Poseidon to re-hurl his trident, should he wish.

Although certainly remarkable, this three-pronged mark in the rock is not the site of the salt water well that Poseidon caused to be by striking the ground with his trident. That long-lost well would have been just inside the north door to the cella. Pausanias said that on a windy day, the sound of waves could even be heard coming from it. (1.26.6)

This is the south porch of the Erechtheum, commonly called the Caryatid Porch. Who these Caryatids are meant to represent is as hotly debated today as it was in antiquity. Are they criminals forced to bear a heavy burden? The Arrephoroi chosen to deliver the peplos to Athena? Young initiates of Artemis at Brauron? A group of upper-class Athenian women? Or in this case is a pretty support beam just a pretty support beam?

This close-up of the Caryatid Porch shows how the women seem to be caught in mid-stride: the three on the left have bent left knees (note how even in marble the garment drapes naturally), while the remaining three bend the right knee.

The Caryatid Lord Elgin brought out of Greece and sold to the British Museum in 1816. It is the best preserved of the 6 Caryatids, the other five of which were moved in 1979 into a nitrogen-filled chamber in the Acropolis Museum in Athens, but too late to save them from the ravages of pollution. More photos to be uploaded soon…

The ceiling coffers of the Caryatid Porch of the Erechtheum are almost entirely intact. Some sources say that the portico ceilings were paneled and painted dark blue with gold stars (much like the east portico of the Propylaia), and some say that they were inset with panels of variously colored glass.

View of Erechtheum with the foundation of an earlier, 6th century, Temple of Athena in the foreground. This is the only whole foundation of a pre-Persian invasion building on the Acropolis.

Here two of the Erechtheum’s three pedimental areas are visible (the third is over the north porch), but none ever had pedimental sculpture. Although many pieces of the frieze survive, its theme is not known.

Huge fragment of egg and dart molding of the Erechtheum (above left). The Caryatids, too, are crowned with egg and dart molding (above right is a close-up of the Caryatid in the British Museum) The building was known for its particularly elaborate architectural decoration, and much of it can be seen in the British Museum (you have to go to the basement). Below on the left is an anta capital from east porch of Erechtheum, and on the right is architrave block from the same porch:

Reconstruction generally follows the principle that one should be able to tell the original from the new – that is why the replacement blocks are a lighter color. The purpose of reconstruction is to use only as much new material as is necessary to provide a true representation of the old and allow appreciation of it in its fullness – not to trick the viewer into thinking that something new really dates to antiquity.

With special thanks to Professor John Younger of Duke University for his help in making these pages more accurate. Any errors are my own.

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