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This Ionic Temple is perched on the north side of the Acropolis. Designed by Mnesicles, it was constructed between 421 B.C.E. and 406 B.C.E. Some sources say the building was never completed. Others say that a fire caused damage at its completion in 406 B.C.E.

The Temple is named after Erechtheus, a combination real/legendary figure who was King of Athens. There are two porches, one on the north side, and this one on the south, facing the Parthenon. Known as the Porch of the Maidens, it features six "maidens" that are actually columns disguised as female figures, very graceful figures. They are the “caryatids,” columns transformed into female figures.

The history of the building is remarkable and reads like a work of fiction. First, the fire was followed by Roman desecration, later conversion to a Christian church, and then the site of a harem for the Turkish governor of Athens. Adding insult to injury, the British archaeologist Lord Elgin took one of the six caryatids to London.

A view of the Erechtheum from the southwest. The remaining five caryatids and a copy of the one looted by Elgin, were placed in the Acropolis Museum (see Athens, Acropolis, above). The six shown here are copies of the originals. Time, wars, and eventually pollution severely damaged the original marbles.

The sculptures that are the caryatids are so very remarkable because they belie the fact that they are really columns. Realize that if we thought of these six women as columns, supporting massive marble on their heads, we would feel the strain and the pain with them. As they have been sculpted, their outer legs - the right leg of each of the three on the left, and the left leg of the three on the right, are straight, with thin fabric falling in pleats. The vertical pleats remind us of the fluting of Grecian columns, thus a measure of stability. Meanwhile, the inner legs show knees thrust outward, with the fabric barely managing to contain those knees. The consequent hip projections add to the realism of the bent knees. That casualness of being 'at ease' literally eases the pain with which we would otherwise see these supporting women. The figures are so comfortable in their casual pose that we lose sight of them as supporting columns. There is, indeed, a transformation.

An additional note here: the skill with which the sculptor worked is evidenced by the fact that we seem to see the knees through the very sheer fabric, all of which is a brilliant illusion; everything appears so real and lifelike.

A sketch made during a visit to the Acropolis. Perception is always enhanced while sketching. A bit of personal research will reveal the conditions expressed above.

© Architecture Past Present & Future - Edward D. Levinson, 2009

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