The Erechtheion

Perched on a cliff high above Athens, this complex temple is very different from its neighbor, the Parthenon.

The Erechtheion, 421–405 B.C.E., Classical period, Acropolis, Athens

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] At the top of the Acropolis in Athens, adjacent to the Parthenon — the largest building — is a small complex, an elegant building called the Erechtheion.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:15] This is an Ionic temple, in contrast to the Parthenon, which is largely Doric. We notice the Ionic features immediately. The columns are more slender, there’s a decorative detail and fineness, and the scroll shapes that we associate with the Ionic order in the capitals.

Dr. Zucker: [0:32] We’re approaching the Erechtheion from the east side. From this angle, the building looks fairly traditional. We see six columns, the rightmost of which is a reconstruction. Now, originally all the Ionic columns on this temple were even more decorative. There was glass inlay, there was gold around the bases and in the capitals, it must have been a glorious sight.

Dr. Harris: [0:51] We could refer to this building not as the Erechtheion but instead as the Temple to Athena Polias, that is, Athena as the protector goddess of the city of Athens.

[1:02] On this east end was a room that held the ancient statue of Athena that was said to have dropped from the heavens. It was made of olive wood. It was very simple. It was nothing like the statue just across the way, sculpted by Phidias.

[1:18] You have this real contrast. With the Erechtheion, we have this highly decorative building that’s very elegant but which housed a very severe and plain statue of Athena. Across the way, in the severe Doric temple of the Parthenon, we had a enormous, highly decorative sculpture of Athena.

Dr. Zucker: [1:38] If you were to enter into the east side, you would walk into a relatively shallow cella, this room that would have been the shrine to this olive-wood sculpture of Athena. This is a much more complicated building than that.

Dr. Harris: [1:50] Right. Normally, in a Greek temple, you expect to see symmetry.

Dr. Zucker: [1:53] In this case, the earth drops down. The building itself is sandwiched into a very tight space between the foundation of the old temple to Athena that the Persians had destroyed and the sheer cliff at the edge of the Acropolis. Yet the architect invented a very elegant solution.

[2:11] Instead of a temple that has six columns on both the east and the west, what the architect has done is to swing the back colonnade around to the north. If we walk down a set of stairs, that brings us to an area dedicated to Zeus and much of the great north porch.

[2:29] We’ve just walked down a narrow, steep flight of stairs. Originally, there was a broad staircase that brought us down to a precinct associated with Zeus. He was the divine judge of a contest between a god and a goddess to see who could be the patron of the city of Athens.

Dr. Harris: [2:45] In a contest judged by the earthly king, [Erechtheus]…

Dr. Zucker: [2:52] The mythic figure.

Dr. Harris: [2:53] …hence the name of this temple, the Erechtheion. Erechtheus asked each god to offer a gift to the people of Athens. He would be the earthly judge. Athena offers an olive tree, a symbol of peace, of fertility. Here on the west side was the location of that tree offered by Athena.

Dr. Zucker: [3:09] In fact, the modern Athenians have replanted that tree in that spot. For Poseidon’s part, he took his trident and struck a rock, and from it came a spring of salt water. He is the ruler of the seas.

[3:22] In fact, if you look at the north porch of the Erechtheion, you can see that in the roof there is a hole, there is a window. According to tradition, this is where his trident came down from the sky and struck the bedrock from which the spring of salt water came.

[3:37] If you look at the base of the porch, you can see that there is some missing stone, which allows you to see the actual mark in the bedrock. This temple, the Erechtheion, was a complicated place. It had to hold not only the sculpture to Athena but also these preexisting shrines.

Dr. Harris: [3:53] The building is an elegant solution for the problem of a site that is serving multiple functions.

Dr. Zucker: [3:59] The architectural problem was a complex one. How do you build a building in a constrained space between an important ancient site that is being commemorated — the old temple to Athena — the side of the cliff, on multiple levels, and for multiple purposes?

Dr. Harris: [4:14] We look up at the north side, we can see that the architect used a blue marble in the frieze area, and that sculpture would have been a Pentelic marble, which was whitish or cream-colored, and would have been beautifully offset against that blue marble.

Dr. Zucker: [4:26] In fact, the entablature of the north porch is incredibly detailed, and because the entablature is so high, on columns that are much higher than on the other sides, you have a continuity that’s created by the carving[s] that surround this building, that allowed the building to feel unified.

Dr. Harris: [4:43] The real treat that everyone comes to see is the so-called Porch of the Maidens on the south side.

Dr. Zucker: [4:48] Let’s go take a look. As we walk around, let’s stop here on the west side of the building. You can have a clear view of the different levels. On the left, you see the very tall north porch. On the right, the Porch of the Maidens, but in between you see engaged or half-columns. Those columns allow for a symmetry with the east porch.

Dr. Harris: [5:06] We’re standing now with our back to the Parthenon, looking at the south side of the Erechtheion, at the glorious Porch of the Maidens with its famous six caryatids — six female figures who seem to be holding up the porch — and reminiscent of kore figures from the Archaic period.

Dr. Zucker: [5:22] They have taken the place of columns. They make explicit the relationship between the vertical column and the human body.

Dr. Harris: [5:29] In Greek architecture, we have a post-and-lintel system. Verticals are posts, and lintels are horizontal members that go across. The vertical elements, the columns, correspond in a way to the verticality of the human body.

Dr. Zucker: [5:42] This isn’t the first time that there have been caryatids in Greek architecture. The Siphnian Treasury at Delphi incorporated female figures, but that was Archaic. Here, we have the human body and the drapery handled in the High Classical manner.

Dr. Harris: [5:56] Most obviously, you can see the contrapposto pose. You see their knees pressing through their drapery, the shift in their hips, the sense of movement here. That sense of movement is balanced by a pull of vertical lines in their drapery that gives them at the same time a sense of stability, so we don’t feel like the porch is going to fall down.

Dr. Zucker: [6:16] Especially since their locked legs — not their free legs but the legs where the drapery completely hides the anatomy of the leg — that is so columnar and that’s towards the outside, creating a sense of stability.

Dr. Harris: [6:29] Confounding the human body with a column.

Dr. Zucker: [6:31] I love how they seem to be in procession. They’re certainly looking towards the Parthenon.

Dr. Harris: [6:37] They remind me of the Panathenaic procession, that annual religious procession where the Athenians would come up to the Acropolis and present a new woven garment to the olive-wood statue of Athena that was housed here.

Dr. Zucker: [6:50] Now, we don’t know who these figures are. There have been lots of theories. In fact, the ancient Roman architect and theoretician Vitruvius suggested they represented Greek people that had sided with the enemy, the Persians, during the Persian war and had been captured by the Athenians.

[7:05] The men had been killed, the women enslaved and forced to wear their royal garments in expression of their lasting humiliation.

Dr. Harris: [7:13] But really, we don’t know.

Dr. Zucker: [7:14] We have no idea.

Dr. Harris: [7:14] We do know that their elegance matches this Ionic order, the decorative moldings, the colored glass and stone that was used here. The effect must have been very rich and very different from what we see today.

Dr. Zucker: [7:27] We talked about the symmetry between the east porch of the building and the half-columns on the west side. Here, there’s a symmetry between the six caryatids on the south porch and the six columns on the north porch, and so although we have a building that is very disparate…

Dr. Harris: [7:43] That includes shrines of different Greek gods and goddesses.

Dr. Zucker: [7:46] …this building beautifully expresses the ability of Greek architects during the High Classical period to unify disparate purposes in a complex terrain.

[7:55] [music]

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "The Erechtheion," in Smarthistory, December 16, 2015, accessed May 19, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/the-erechtheion/.