The Erechtheion Temple


The Erechtheion is a true gem of the Acropolis, distinguished by its unusual architecture, especially the porch of the Caryatids. Unlike the Parthenon, which was designed to embody the splendor and power of ancient Athens, the Erechtheion served as the primary repository for the sacred artifacts of Attica.
In modern times, researchers have established that the location of the Erechtheion was once the site of a Mycenaean palace in Athens dating back to 15-11 centuries BCE. This discovery was supported by the nature of the rock carvings.

Slightly southwest of the Erechtheion, there was a structure whose foundation is still visible and is often identified with the old temple of Athena Polias, built in the last quarter of the 5th century BCE. It is also believed that this was the site of the dispute between Athena and Poseidon over the possession of Attica. Olive trees grew on the western side of the Erechtheion, supposedly sprouting from the impact of the goddess’s spear. During the Persian invasion of 480-479 BCE, the tree was destroyed but, according to one version, was replanted, and according to another, it grew naturally, with the present tree planted in 1964.

Of all the structures on the Athenian Acropolis, the Erechtheion was built in the most complex historical circumstances. The construction began around 421 BCE during the hiatus in the Peloponnesian War known as the Peace of Nicias. The architect remains unknown, with Philocles, mentioned as the overseer of the work, likely being more concerned with construction management than the design.

The same can be said of another architect, Archilochus. Contemporary scholars lean towards the idea that the construction is the result of the collaborative efforts of Phidias and Mnesicles, considering not only shared architectural techniques and solutions but also the interrelation of the locations of both buildings on the rock surface. Construction of the temple was repeatedly halted due to the realities of the Peloponnesian War, which was unfolding unfavorably for Athens at that time. The Erechtheion was finally completed around 406 BCE.

The wooden idol housed in this temple, known as the xoanon (ksóan) of Athena, fallen from the sky – the Palladium, was the centerpiece. There are numerous mythological versions of the origin of the Palladium, but the main one states that the statue fell from the sky in Troy. A prophecy stated that Troy would not fall as long as the sanctuary was within its walls This held true until Odysseus and Diomedes stole it from the city. At the conclusion of the Panathenaic festivals held every four years, this statue was adorned with a peplos, a special garment embroidered with the battle of the gods with the giants, woven by the priestesses of Athena on the Acropolis rock. The Erechtheion also housed the statue of Hermes brought by Cecrops, a golden lamp crafted by the renowned master Callimachus, perpetually burning, with oil poured into it once a year. The name of the temple derived from the remains of the grave of Erechtheus.

The temple also contained a well with saltwater, struck by Poseidon, the remnants of which are preserved to this day, along with a stone with three cavities from his trident. Pausanias reports that if one were to bring their ear to the well’s opening, they could hear the sound of the sea. According to him, the temple housed three altars: to Poseidon and Erechtheus, the hero Butes, and Hephaestus; the walls displayed paintings depicting the life of the Butad family. Below the floor, there were crypts where a sacred snake resided. Thus, the temple was dedicated to two deities – Athena and Poseidon.

Archaeological excavations revealed traces of a fire at the end of the 1st century BCE, although no information about this fire has been preserved, making it impossible to determine the circumstances of this disaster.
During the Byzantine period, the Erechtheion was transformed into a small church. n the Frankish era, the building was connected to the Propylaea to form a palace in the Renaissance style. During the Ottoman Turkish rule, the Erechtheion housed the harem of the local pasha.

The Venetian bombardment of 1687 caused very serious damage to the building. Afterward, almost the entire structure lay in ruins, except for the northern porch of Pandrosos and the southern porch of the Caryatids. One of the Caryatids was taken by Lord Elgin in 1802 and is now exhibited in the British Museum. The military actions during the Greek War of Independence caused even greater damage to the temple, although it seemed that there was nowhere left to further destroy the Erechtheion.

Close examination and attempts at reconstruction began as early as 1837. The first reconstruction was carried out in 1872 but was deemed unreliable by scholars. Subsequently, with the participation of the renowned German archaeologist Wilhelm Dörpfeld, a new reconstruction was undertaken, giving the temple its modern appearance. Extensive restoration work took place from 1902 to 1907 under the direction of N. Balanos. Many missing stones were discovered, and crucial parts of the temple were restored. While the external appearance of the temple’s details is more or less clear at present, reconstructing the layout and decoration of the interior is challenging due to various late additions and alterations.

The layout of the Erechtheion represents one of the boldest and most unusual architectural solutions in the ensemble of the Athenian Acropolis. The asymmetric plan and the arrangement of the three porches of the temple at different levels have no analogs in ancient Greek architecture. The dimensions of the main building are 11.63 X 23.50 meters. To the east, the cella concludes with a six-column Ionic porch spanning the entire width of the building, similar to temples of the prostylos type. The western part of the structure was particularly unconventional It featured two uniquely positioned porches that terminated not the front but the longitudinal sides of the cella, oriented towards the north and south (the northern porch and the Caryatid porch).

On the western side of the temple, there is a high stylobate, above which rise four columns in antis. The spaces between the columns were enclosed with grilles installed in the 5th century BCE, as indicated in the report of the construction commission. In the Roman period, these were replaced with stone masonry with window openings, transforming the columns into semi-columns. The height of the columns on the western facade is 5.61 meters, and the height of the stylobate on which they stand is 4.8 meters. The base is positioned 1.30 meters higher than the similar base of the southern porch. Just below the stylobate is the door that connected the temple to the sanctuary of Pandrosos, the daughter of Cecrops.

During the construction, at the southwest corner of the Erechtheion, beneath the foundations of the Hekatompedon, an ancient grave was discovered. t was recognized as the tomb of Cecrops, and to preserve its sanctity, the foundation of the Erechtheion was shifted westward, with a large marble beam, 1.5 meters wide and 4.83 meters long, placed over the grave.
The frieze of the Erechtheion deserves special attention: it was crafted from dark (purple-black) Eleusinian marble limestone, against which individually carved sculptures of white Parian marble were highlighted and attached. An ornate cornice extended above. This frieze, along with the entire entablature, continued onto the eastern porch and other facades of the structure. The subject of the frieze’s images is not fully established, but it is believed to depict the exploits of local chthonic heroes: Cecrops, Erechtheus, Pandion, Ardettus, Butes, and Theseus. Thus, the Erechtheion was part of the composition of the Athenian Acropolis, showcasing the past of Athens from its mythological roots.

A small porch known as the Porch of the Maidens adjoins the western end of the southern wall. In this porch, columns are replaced by six marble figures of maidens, Caryatids, slightly taller than human height – 2.1 meters.
The idea of placing columns in the form of female figures is not new and had already been implemented a century earlier in Delphi when constructing treasuries for the Cnidians and Siphnians. However, it is in the Caryatids of the Erechtheion that this idea found its most brilliant embodiment. According to one version, the image of the Caryatids was taken from the arrephoroi, priestesses of Athena, while another associates them with a mythological story related to the women of the city of Caryae, who collaborated during one of the wars and were sentenced to bear various burdens.

The image of the Caryatids was restored when, in 1953, the villa of Emperor Hadrian was excavated in Italy, and he had replicas made for himself. The three Caryatids on the western side mirrored those on the eastern side. The maidens held the folds of their dresses with one hand, made using the “wet drapery” technique, emphasizing the lines and curves of the female body. In the other hand, they held an amphora, which was intended to represent the prize awarded to the victors of the Panathenaic competitions – an amphora of the highest quality olive oil. The facial features and details of the Caryatids’ dress were highly individual, but the Turks, whose religion prohibited the presence of images of living beings, chiseled the faces of the statues. Currently, copies are in the Porch of the Maidens, the originals of five are placed in the Acropolis Museum, and one is in the British Museum.

A notable detail is the lush hairstyle of the maidens, along with a basket on their heads, replacing the capital. This entire substantial and weighty construction was intended to provide additional stability to the column, as the marble entablature could barely support the fragile necks of the female figures, even in marble. The entablature is also lightened to the maximum and consists of two components: the architrave and the cornice with dentils; the frieze along the porch of the Caryatids is absent.

The eastern facade is crowned with a shallow six-column porch of very light proportions. Its column height is 6.58 meters. In the rear wall were a door adorned with a richly decorated door frame and two windows, which are partially preserved. The northern porch reaches dimensions of 12.03 x 7.45 meters at the lower step (in width and depth). Six columns stand around its perimeter. They are heavier than the columns of the eastern porch and reach a height of 7.63 meters. They are spaced wider than the columns of the eastern porch, with a distance between them of 2.32 to 2.27 meters. Towards the middle of the columns of the northern porch, there is a slight entasis, thickening, and then tapering, with a difference between the upper and lower diameters reaching 10 cm.

Throughout the entire building, intertwining ornamentation runs along the lines of the cornices. However, the door to the pronaos in the northern porch is particularly richly decorated Its tapering upward opening (with a height of 4.88 meters, a width at the bottom of 2.42 meters, and at the top of 2.34 meters) is framed by a door frame with rosettes and a lintel on consoles adorned with anthemion The door frame is well-preserved and serves as an excellent example of the lintel of the classical period of ancient Greek architecture. The western part of the building lies 3.206 meters below the floor of the eastern part (elevated above the level of the platform adjacent to the southeast corner) by approximately 1 meter. The difference in levels adds no less uniqueness to the composition of the Erechtheion than the asymmetry of the plan.

In terms of color, the Erechtheion was likely not as vibrant as the Parthenon, and polychromy here was replaced by the use of stone of different colors. White, gradually acquiring a warmer shade of Pentelic marble, gray Eleusinian marble limestone, pure white Parian marble, and gilding on the ornamentation – this seems to be the entire color palette of the Erechtheion.

The overall picture of this magnificent structure, the refinement of the Ionic order, which underwent many evolutionary changes, and the fact that the Erechtheion was built more than 20 years after the completion of the Parthenon, not only demonstrate the changes that ancient Greek architecture underwent during this time but also indirectly suggest the architects’ goal – to create a sanctuary for the fundamental sacred artifacts of the polis.

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