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Erechteum Caryatids

Erechteum Caryatids

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            Their slavery was an eternal warning. Insult crushed them.

They seemed to pay a penalty for their fellow citizens.

Vitruvius, On Architecture


          Caryatid is the name given to an architectural column in the form of a draped standing female figure which holds up a Doric entablature with mutules on the cornice. In marble architecture they first appeared in pairs in three small Treasury buildings at Delphi and Olympia (550–530 BCE). They were used as well on ritual basins. Caryatids of this period often have a short column drum above the head in order to facilitate the join with the column capital.

            The most celebrated example is the caryatid porch of the Erechtheum (Erechteion) which contains six figures, on the Acropolis of Athens. The Erectheion was built to house the ancient wooden cult statue of Athena but also served as a centre for the cults of Erechtheus (a mythical king of Athens), his brother Boutes, the gods Hephaistos and Poseidon. The building was constructed between 421 and 406 BCE as part of Pericles’ great project to rejuvenate the architecture of Athens.


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          Erechteum (Erechteion)


             The caryatid columns are all standing figures of women. Each caryatid is individual, but all share certain elements. They all wear a robe that clings to the figure as though it is wet. Their hips and legs are positioned to show the different bearing of their weight, and each caryatid has intricately braided hair.

          The height of a Caryatid without its plinth and capital is 2.70 m. One of the chief reasons why the Caryatids are so impressive is that they stand on a high podium, with the eyes of the spectators 1,70 m below their feet. Although of the same height and build, and similarly attired and coiffed, the six Caryatids are not the same: their faces, stance, draping, and hair are carved separately; the three on the left stand on their right foot, while the three on the right stand on their left foot. Their bulky, intricately arranged hairstyles serve the crucial purpose of providing static support to their necks, which would otherwise be the thinnest and structurally weakest part.

14073126741 44a76f70f7 zCaryatids from the Erechtheion on the Acropolis, their hair is braided and falls in a thick rope down their back, Acropolis Museum, Athens (photo: Carole Raddato)

           Caryatids are sometimes called korai (“maidens”). Similar figures, bearing baskets on their heads, are called canephores (from kanēphoroi,“basket carriers”); they represent the maidens who carried sacred objects used at feasts of the gods. Similarly, the caryatid columns carry the capitals on their heads. There are earlier examples of caryatides (or occasionally other female figures in various attires) supporting mirrors, some of them looking like exotic figures, surrounded by sirens and vegetation. Those more simply and modestly portrayed may be generic allusions to the potential users. In a few in­stances, however, the caryatid is shown - surprisingly - naked or wearing only a brief loincloth, thus re­calling the athletic Spartan women who were entitled to participate in sports events and to set up their own victory statues, although none of them has survived.

    One of the very rare references to Caryatids is a quotation in Athenaeus from memoirs of a parasite called Eucrates the "Lark". These were published by a certain Lynceus. A character in the play, Eucrates scoffs at some people who are partying in a room whose ceiling is collapsing. He says to them: "You eat with your right hand but with your left you have to hold up the ceiling like the caryatids."

            The Roman architect Vitruvius says that caryatids are linked with the Persian invasion of the Peloponnesus - either that of 490 or most likely that of 480 BCE. During these invasions many smaller Greek states allied themselves with the Persians. The Spartan town of Caryae, in northern Laconia, was one such. After the Persians were defeated and driven away, all Greece turned against the traitor-town: "It was captured and all the men folk killed. The married women were led off in cap­tivity, nor were they allowed to remove the clothing and ornament that showed them to be married women. They were led through the city not in the manner of a tri­umphal procession held on a particular occasion but rather were displayed as perma­nent examples sustaining a weight of punishment for their heavy sins before the city. Thus the architects of that time designed for public buildings figures of matrons placed to carry heavy burdens; in order that the punishment of the sin of the Caryaean women might be known to posterity and historically recorded."

            The word "Caryatid" means simply "inhabitant (or child) of Caryae". The intention of the victors was not just to lead the Caryaens women on one occasion in a triumph, but to ensure that they exhibited a permanent picture of slavery, and that in the heavy mockery they suffered they should be seen to pay forever the penalty for their city. So the architects of those times designed images of them specially placed to uphold a load, so that a well-known punishment of the Caryates' wrongdoing might be handed down to posterity.


Parthenon.The most important buildings visible on the Acropolis today—the Parthenon, the Propylaia, the Erechtheion with the Caryatides and the temple of Athena Nike—were initiated by Pericles.

     Vitruvius stated also that these women often danced to honour the goddess Artemis Karyatis or Artemis of the Walnut Tree, while balancing a basket on their heads.The caryatis dance is also described as a fighting dance, performed before battles, in which at the climax the dancers raise their hands as they line up row by row in battle formations. The neat lines of caryatis dancers predict the rows in which caryatids are so often displayed. The goddess honoured by them, Artemis was a stern and sometimes cruel goddess who in early times demanded human sacrifices. Later on surrogate victims were offered to her. For example, in Sparta and elsewhere virgin girls offered her goats. One of the most famous images of Artemis, the statue in the Villa Albani, shows her as the receiver of lamb-victims. The philologi­cal sources and etymological origins for Artemis' name have to do with butchery, mur­der, and hanging. A public hanging or, even more, the display of a criminal on a scaf­fold, are punishments analogous to that of the Caryaean matrons.

     But the connection between Caryatids and Artemis goes deeper than this. Certainly the main stories about Artemis - her untouchability and the taboo against so much as looking upon her, which was, according to the story, Actaeon's downfall - reinforce this idea. When Greek women married they often sacrificed a lock of hair to Artemis to ward off her anger at their renunciation of virginity. This matrimonial theme is recalled in Vitruvius' account. It is only the married women of Caryae who were punished, which seems to imply some special culpability.

4828962694 1c9efa43bc zErechteion and the Caryatides

          In the sentence immediately following his tale of the Caryaean women Vitruvius records that during the same Persian invasion, other Spartan troops (allied with the Greek city-states Athens, Corinth and Megara) under general Pausanias defeated a much larger Persian force at Plataea. Vitruvius followed his story of the origin of Caryatids with a description of the Persian Stoa (or "Persian Porch") erected to commemorate the victory. The roof of this building appeared to be supported by "likenesses of the prisoners, dressed in rich, barbaric clothes". The metaphor is obvious: "There they placed statues of their captives in barbaric dress - punishing their pride with deserved insults - to support the roof, that their enemies might quake, fearing the workings of such bravery, and that their fellow citizens, looking upon a pattern of manhood, might by such glory be roused and prepared for the defence of freedom. There from many have set up Persian statues to support architraves and their orna­ments. This motive has supplied for their works some striking variations." This is essentially a retelling of the Caryaean tale with the substitution of Persian men for Greek women. So the Persids (columns in the shape of Persian captives) are mates, of sorts, for the Caryatids, but trophies too. Cary­atids and Persids are emblems of a treachery and a barbarism that sought to under­mine and destroy Greece. The prevalent ideology in Greece through the rest of the fifth century BCE remained anti-Persian to the extent that a charge of medism was a serious reflection on an individual's or a state's Hellenic credentials. Caryatids bore a special meaning that they were intended to recall those who had betrayed their country to the Persians.

     The two stories have more in common than their structure. First of all both the Artemis-worshipping women of Caryae and the captors of the Persians are Spartans. Both types of portico were invented to commemorate victories and both use costume, decoration, and weaponry to identify the punished groups. Above all, both stories tell how acts hostile to the Greeks were punished by the invention of new types of column.

ErechteionandAthensErechteion and Athens

Vitruvius adds that Ionic col­umns resembled not only the physiques but the characteristic dress and ornament of the captured women. The shafts are fluted in imitation of the women's pleated chitons, and the curled volutes of their capitals are like their rolled hair. Finally, the fact that the Doric and Ionic columns in Vitruvius' account originate in conjunction with each other reflects earlier pairing of the women of Caryae and the Persian invaders.

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      Close-up of a column corner in the Erechtheion. Note that the columns are Ionic whereas those of the Parthenon are Doric

      Moreover, Caryatids share one characteristic which is distinctly un-Athenian, namely their hair-styles. This, strangely, has never been the subject of comment for, given their position, no one has ever thought of these ladies as anything other than Athenian. And yet their coiffures, consisting of thick braids above and massive tresses below are quite unlike those of Athenian women ornaments. The Erechteum Caryatids carry a powerful political message, that the Spartans of the city of Caryae were behaving in a manner which betrayed everything a Greek should stand for. Athenians employed Caryatids as propaganda vehicles against their enemies.

       Vitruvius never mentions them again because he regards them as exactly interchangeable with columns. The male counterparts of caryatids are currently referred to as atlantes.

            Technically, as marble sculptures, Erechteum Caryatides were an evolution of the earlier korai statues of both male and female figures prevalent throughout the Archaic period. These were themselves an evolution of Persian columns which often employed animal figures within the column design. The arms of Caryatides have unfortunately been lost but later Roman copies show them holding in their right hands phialai- shallow vessels for pouring libations - whilst their left hand raised slightly their robe.

            The Erechteum Caryatides seem to be carved by different artists, most probably from the workshop of Alcamenes, student and colleague of Pheidias. Interestingly, the porch of the Erectheion stands over what was believed to be the tomb of the mythical king Kekrops and perhaps the Caryatids and their libation vessels were a tribute to this fact - libations were poured into the ground as an offering to the dead.

           Caryatides were later directly copied, in alternation with columns, in the Roman emperor Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli. Other examples include the figure at the Villa Albani at Rome and two colossal figures in the smaller propylon at Eleusis. They also appeared in the upper stories of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa’s Pantheon and in the colonnade surrounding the Forum of Augustus at Rome, as well as in the Incantada Salonika (Thessaloníki, Greece).

              One of the Erechtheion caryatids now stands in the British Museum in London as part of the collection of Elgin Marbles. It was removed from the Erechtheion's south porch, by a man acting on behalf of Lord Elgin in the early nineteenth century. The five other remaining caryatids remained on the Acropolis, after surviving the Greek war of independence (or the Greek Revolution against Ottoman Empire in 1821-1832). They have been later removed in order to be protected and are now in Acropolis Museum, being replaced onsite by replicas. The pedestal for the Caryatid removed to London remained empty.


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           Caryatid from Erechteion. British Museum, London


        In modern times the Erechtheum Caryatids in particular have been misunderstood and have been endowed with benign rather than hostile characteristics. The reason seems to lie in the fact that in the early nineteenth century they became in effect the patron saints of philhellenism. There is a romantic tale which recurs in many travellers' accounts of early nineteenth century Athens, that when Lord Elgin had a Caryatid removed from the Erechteion, "the whole town was filled with doleful sighs and lamentations as the remaining Caryatids mourned "their ravished sister". Such a story would only have encouraged a rather sympathetic view not the one of punished treachery attributed to them by ancient Athenians.


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