Erechtheion Caryatids

By the Editors of the Madain Project

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The famous "Porch of the Maidens", with six draped female figures (caryatids) as supporting columns for the southerb porch of Erechtheion. The porch was built to conceal the giant 15-ft beam needed to support the southwest corner over the Kekropion, after the building was drastically reduced in size and budget following the onset of the Peloponnesian war.


The Caryatids have become the temple’s signature feature, as they stand and seem to casually support the weight of the porch’s roof on their heads. Their identification, or the purpose for such elaborate column treatment is lost through the centuries, but it was by no means a new feature in Greek architecture. These are the most famous Caryatids, which support the roof of the false south porch of the Erechtheion on the Athenian acropolis.


circa 432 BCE

Modern Replicas
All the Caryatids on site today are exact replicas, while the originals are protected by the corrosive air of modern Athens in the Acropolis museum. Interestingly, the porch of the Erechtheion stands over what was believed to be the tomb of the mythical king Kekrops and perhaps the Caryatids and their libation vessels are a tribute to this fact - libations were poured into the ground as an offering to the dead.

circa 432 BCE

Effigy of the Goddess Pallas Athena
Here in the Porch of the Caryatids or The Porch of the Maidens, the most sacred relic of Athens was housed, the Palladium, a olive wood effigy of the Goddess Pallas Athena, said not to have been made by human hand, but to have miraculously fallen from heaven.

circa 432 BCE

Arms of the Caryatids
The arms of the figures have unfortunately been lost but Roman copies show them holding in their right hands phialai - shallow vessels for pouring libations - whilst their left hand raised slightly their robe. Scholars believe them to be carved by different artists, most probably from the workshop of Alcamenes, student and colleague of Pheidias

circa 432 BCE

British Museum Caryatid
In 1800 one of the caryatids removed by Lord Elgin in order to decorate his Scottish mansion, and were later sold to the British Museum. The Romans are also believed to have copied the Erechtheion caryatids, installing copies in the Forum of Augustus and the Pantheon in Rome, and at Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli. Another Roman example, found on the Via Appia, is the Townley Caryatid. The Syphian treasury at the sanctuary of Delphi similarly substituted female figures for columns as far back as the sixth century BCE.

circa 432 BCE

Removal and Preservation of the Original Caryatids
In 1979, the five original Caryatids were moved to the Old Acropolis Museum and replaced in situ by exact replicas. The Caryatids display features which would become staple elements of Classical sculpture: clothes which cling to the body (the ‘wet look’) and a bold and more dynamic positioning of the hips and legs. Although each Caryatid wears the same robe - a belted Doric peplos and short himation - each is uniquely rendered, a feature particularly noticeable in their intricate plaited hairstyles (inspect).

circa 432 BCE

Architectural Context: Construction of the Erechtheion
The building of the Erechtheion concluded the ambitious building program initiated by Pericles during a time that the Athenian empire enjoyed unprecedented political and cultural influence. Its completion found Athens at the mercy of Sparta, and its treasury depleted. By no means however did the splendor of the Athenian cultural achievements cease to shine as evident in their influence on the art and architecture of the next two and a half millennia.

circa 432 BCE

Current Temple Structure
The Erechtheion temple as seen today was built between 421 and 406 BCE. Its architect may have been Mnesicles, and it derived its name from a shrine dedicated to the legendary Greek hero Erichthonius. The sculptor and mason of the structure was Phidias, who was employed by Pericles to build both the Erechtheum and the Parthenon. Some have suggested that it may have been built in honor of the legendary king Erechtheus, who is said to have been buried nearby.


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