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The Erechtheion

The Erechtheion, 421-405 B.C.E. (Classical Greek), Acropolis, Athens
Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker.
Created by Steven Zucker and Beth Harris.

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Video transcript

(piano music) - [Voiceover] 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. - [Voiceover] 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. - [Voiceover] We're approaching the Erechtheion from the east side, and from this angle the building looks fairly traditional. We see six columns, the rightmost of which is a reconstruction. Now originally, all of the Ionic columns on this temple were even more decorative. There was glass inlaid, there was gold around the bases and in the capitals. It must have been a glorious sight. - [Voiceover] 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. On this east end was a room that held the ancient statue of Athena that was said to have dropped from the heavens, and it was made of olive wood, it was very simple, it was nothing like the statue just across the way sculpted by Phidias. So you have this real contrast because with the Erechtheion we have this highly decorative building that's very elegant, but which housed a very severe and plain statue of Athena, but across the way in the severe, Doric temple of the Parthenon we had an enormous, highly decorative sculpture of Athena. - [Voiceover] If you were to enter into the east side you would walk into a relatively shallow cellar, this room that would have been the shrine to this olive wood sculpture of Athena, but this is a much more complicated building than that. - [Voiceover] Right, because normally in a Greek temple you expect to see symmetry. - [Voiceover] In this case, the earth drops down and 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, and yet the architect invented a very elegant solution. Instead of a temple that has six columns on both the east and the west, what the architect has done is just 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. So we've just walked down a narrow, steep flight of stairs, but 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. - [Voiceover] And in a contest judged by the earthly king, Erechtheion. - [Voiceover] The mythic figure. - [Voiceover] Hence the name of this temple, the Erechtheion. Erechtheus asked each god to offer a gift to the people of Athens, and he would be the earthly judge. Athena offers an olive tree, a symbol of peace, of fertility, and just here on the west side was the location of that tree offered by Athena. - [Voiceover] In fact, the modern Athenians have replanted that tree in that spot, and 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. In fact, if you look at the north porch of the Erechtheion, you can see that in the roof there's a hole, there's a window, and according to tradition this is where his trident came down from the sky and struck the bedrock from which the spring of saltwater came. If you look at the base of the porch, you can see that there's some missing stone which allows you to see the actual mark in the bedrock. So this temple, the Erechtheion, was a complicated place. It had to hold not only the sculpture to Athena, but also these preexisting shrines. - [Voiceover] The building is an elegant solution for the problem of a site that is serving multiple functions. - [Voiceover] So 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? - [Voiceover] When we look up at the north side, we can see that the architect used a blue marble in the freeze area, and that sculpture would have been in Pentelic marble, which was whitish or cream colored and would have been just beautifully offset against that blue marble. - [Voiceover] 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 that surround this building that allow the building to feel unified. - [Voiceover] But the real treat that everyone comes to see is the so-called porch of the maidens on the south side. - [Voiceover] Let's go take a look. As we walk around, let's stop here on the west side of the building because you 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, and those columns allow for a kind of symmetry with the east porch. - [Voiceover] So 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. - [Voiceover] They have taken the place of columns and they make explicit the relationship between the vertical column and the human body. - [Voiceover] In Greek architecture, we have a post and lintel system, verticals are posts and lintels are horizontal members that go across, and the vertical elements, the columns, correspond in a way to the verticality of the human body. - [Voiceover] 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, and here we have the human body and the drapery handled in the high classical manner. - [Voiceover] 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, but 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. - [Voiceover] 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. - [Voiceover] And confounding the human body with a column. - [Voiceover] I love how they seem to be in procession, they're certainly looking towards the Parthenon. - [Voiceover] 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. - [Voiceover] 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. The men had been killed, the women enslaved and forced to where their royal garments in expression of their lasting humiliation. - [Voiceover] But really we don't know. - [Voiceover] We have no idea. - [Voiceover] We do know that their elegance matches its 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. - [Voiceover] But 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. So although we have a building that is very disparate. - [Voiceover] That enclosed the shrines of different Greek gods and goddesses. - [Voiceover] This building beautifully expresses the ability of Greek architects during the high classical period to unify disparate purposes in a complex terrain. (piano music)