Thursday, September 11, 2008


The Erechtheion, Athens, Greece; Mnesikles(?), architect, 421-ca. 406 b.c. Detail of caryatid porch, photographed in the 1930s.

Athens, Greece

The Erechtheion, built on the site of ancient sanctuaries on the Athenian Acropolis, is so unlike every other Greek temple that some have dismissed it as an aberration. Rather, it is the result of its architect, probably Mnesikles, applying inventive skill to accommodate a complex web of religious relationships. The Erechtheion provides evidence that the craft tradition of architecture, hobbled by convention, was giving place to a new creative approach to design. That was a great step forward. The city-states of Athens and Sparta and their respective allies fought the Peloponnesian Wars between 431 and 404 b.c., interrupted by the six-year Peace of Nikias, from 421. Although their popular strategos (elected general) Perikles had died in an epidemic in 429 b.c., the Athenians took occasion of the cessation of hostilities to complete his fifty-year plan to restore the glory of the Acropolis. The last phase of the work was the Erechtheion, commenced in 421 b.c. and finished around 406 b.c. The building was a brilliant response to both spiritual and practical problems.

First, the building, unlike other temples, was to be dedicated to more than one deity, and its precise location, because it was connected with several other important spiritual themes, was especially significant to Athenians. The temple’s primary purpose was to provide shrines for both Athena Polias and Poseidon. The sanctuary was also to include the graves of Erechtheos (a mythical king of Athens) with the sacred snake, and of Kekrops, another fabled Athenian ancestor. Moreover, there was the place where Poseidon’s trident or Zeus’s thunderbolt—the mythology was ambiguous—had struck the ground, the “Erechtheis Sea.” and the thalassa, a saltwater spring. The altars of Poseidon, Erechtheos, Zeus Hypatos, Hephaistos, the Boutes, Zeus Thyechoos, and a reliquary for an ancient wooden statue of Hermes were to stand within its temenos (sacred courtyard). Besides all that, the building had to accommodate a sacred olive tree in the precinct of Pandrosos, which also included the altar of Zeus Herkeios. The difficulty of laying out the Erechtheion was compounded by the irregular terrain. Eventually, the north and west walls would stand about 9 feet (2.7 meters) below the south and east.

The architect satisfied all these conditions, combining great imagination with pious deference to tradition to produce a spatially ingenious temple that must have at once bemused and delighted his clients. The plan of the Erechtheion was very complicated in comparison with the simple rectangular forms of all earlier Greek temples. It consisted of three almost independent sections (the rather traditional main temple, the north porch, and the famous caryatid portico), each with its separate roof. Because of the steep slope across the site, it was built at four different levels. The naos was separated—once again, a major departure from convention—into two main parts, the east cella devoted to Athena Polias and another, whose roof is divided by a huge beam, to Poseidon-Erechtheos. Underground rooms housed the statue of Hermes and Erechtheos’s tomb.

Ionic orders employing three different proportional systems were incorporated, and graceful statues of korai (draped female figures) supported the entablature of the caryatid portico. The building was extravagantly decorated. Although it never seems to have had pedimental sculptures, relief carvings filled the frieze of Eleusinian stone. Fragments survive, but the general theme is not known. The ceiling coffers of the caryatid portico are almost entirely intact. Some scholars think all the portico ceilings were paneled and painted dark blue with gold stars, others that they were inset with colored glass panels.

The unique temple was converted into a church during the Middle Ages, and later it was used as a harem for the ruler of Athens during the Turkish occupation. In 1801 the British ambassador, Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin, took a caryatid (which he later sold to the British Museum), replacing it with a plaster cast. The Erechtheion was partly rebuilt by the American School of Classical Studies. Now it again suffers depredations, this time from atmospheric pollution and the increasing pressure of tourism.

Further reading

Harris, Diane. 1995. The Treasures of the Parthenon and Erechtheion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jeppesen, Kristian. 1987. The Theory of the Alternative Erechtheion. Århus, Sweden: Århus University Press.

Scully, Vincent. 1979. The Earth, the Temple, and the Gods. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.




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