“There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in proportion” (Sir Francis Bacon)
We have just announced a brand new escorted tour: Exploring Athens (and Attica), an intense exploration of the Greek capital and its surrounding reason, focusing on its wealth of archaeological sites and its long history, but also on its history before and after antiquity, and on its urban cultural life, on the beautiful landscapes of Attica and on the city’s gastronomic riches.
So today, we highlight on one particular building in Athens. Yes, it is on the Acropolis, but no, it is not the most obvious choice, which would be the oft-discussed and much-debated Parthenon. Instead, we concentrate on the Erechtheion. But let’s set the scene first:
The ancient citadel of Athens, often considered as “the Acropolis”, while it should really be called “the Athenian Acropolis” (the term simply means Upper Town), is of course a veritable reservoir of grandeur and beauty, worthy of visiting not just once, but many times.
These days, many visitors are distracted and disturbed by the fact that the Acropolis is an active building site: since the 1980s, its monuments are undergoing an extraordinarily sophisticated programme of study, consolidation and reconstruction, necessitating scaffoldings, worksheds and what have you. Those works are highly respectable, as reflected by the Europa Nostra, the highest European award for conservation, awarded to the restoration works on the Propylaia in 2013.
The rocky plateau had been the virtually unassailable citadel of Athens since prehistoric times, but became its sacred centre as the city grew in importance, power, wealth and size during the 7th and 6th centuries BC. When the Persians sacked Athens in 480 BC, they also razed the Acropolis, then the site of numerous shrines and at least two major temples. It was a generation later that the Acropolis was redesigned as the coherent architectural ensemble we now see, one of the first in European history.
The Erechtheion, located near the northern edge of the limestone plateau, is an immensely complex and ornate, and most of all unusual, structure. In spite of its fame as a key achievement of Classical Greek architecture, its details having been copied and imitated often from antiquity to the present, visitors do not always realise that it was arguably more sacred than the Parthenon, and moreover, that it is really very odd.
If we try to free ourselves from the familiarity that the Erechtheion holds for most of us, be it from actual visits, from photographs or from drawings, we can begin to see how strange it is. Unlike typical Greek temples, which tend to follow relatively standardised “canonical” axial patterns, it has no clear front, back or sides; in fact all four sides can be seen as focal points, nearly as if we were looking at four buildings, not one. In contrast to the even foundations of most Classical buildings, which usually stand on a flat crepidoma, the Erechtheion is built on two levels, its northern and western façades three metres lower than the south and east. Most unusually in mainland Greece, all its columns are in the Ionic order, except the even more unusual Caryatids in the south. Also, part of the roof over the north porch was left out on purpose.We have had two and a half thousand years to get used to the Erechtheion’s appearance, but to the 5th century BC visitor, it must have looked not just impressive, but strikingly unusual, even odd.
Why so much oddness?, one might ask.
Considering this question, you should also pay close attention to how finely and elegantly all details are finished. Note the regular blocks of Pentelic marble in the walls and the course of blue marble above, which was designed as the backdrop to a frieze of white figures (the remains of which are now in the Acropolis Museum). Even more admirable are the finely carved tall and slender Ionic columns and the extraordinary rich detail on their bases and capitals, the ornately framed doorway leading to the interior from the north porch, and of course the Caryatids holding up their porch. The figures you see now are copies: five of the originals have been moved to the Acropolis Museum to protect them from the elements, the sixth was long before taken to London by Lord Elgin.
The Erechtheion formed the final stage of the great Classical reorganisation of the Acropolis. In 456 BC, a generation after the Persian sack, when the city was at the height of her powers, her leader, Pericles (really Perikles), embarked on a momentous and still effective effort. He decided to redesign the sacred rock and its monuments along a coherent plan, using a proportion of the resources of the city and its allies in the Delian League. This large-scale project, virtually defining what we now call Classical, marked a new departure in Greece, since Athens and other cities had so far grown piecemeal and organically, not permitting such grand urban visions.
Pericles’ plan incorporated four principal structures, each of them replacing earlier predecessors: the Parthenon, the Great Propylaia, the Temple of Athena Nike, and finally the Erechtheion. Although part of the original plan, construction of the Erechtheion was probably only begun around 420 BC, when the other three buildings already stood, and completed, after an interruption, around 406 BC, as indicated by some of the calculations for its construction cost which survive in the form of inscriptions. The west façade was altered after a fire in the first century BC.
Although each of the four main monuments was part of a greater plan, with complex interrelations in terms of proportions and detail, each also served specific functions and possessed individual features. Thus, the Parthenon, the greatest of all Doric temples in Greece, serves as a central visual focus for the whole city, expresses her piety, but also her might, wealth, sophistication and ambition. The Propylaia, modelled on the Parthenon’s architectural principles, provide a grand, imposing and dramatic entry to the sacred rock, while the Temple of Athena Nike, placed outside the Propylaia and thus highly visible from the ancient city centre, provides a small but immensely ornate preview of the riches awaiting the visitor on the Acropolis,
It is in this context that we must interpret the strangeness of the Erechtheion. It is not clear who designed it: although Philokles is named as the architect in charge at completion, the original plans may go back to Mnesikles, a contemporary of Pericles. In any case, those responsible faced a triple challenge.
First, it had to house the cult of at least two major deities, of Athena Polias, that is Athena as patron of the city, and of Poseidon, god of the sea, probably as well as various smaller cults, all of which had been located in various structures in the same area before the Persian sack.
Second, it was built on the city’s most sacred ground: its location contained several of the most sacred spots in Athenian myth and legend. Thus, the area was believed to contain the graves of the mythical kings Erechtheos and Kekrops. Even more significantly, it was the very spot were Poseidon and Athena had nearly come to blows, fighting each other for the patronage of Athens. As befits the home of democracy, they had eventually decided to let the Athenians decide who should be their main deity, each offering a gift. Poseidon had given the Athenians the sea, symbolising the city’s strategic position controlling the Aegean trade routes, while Athena had bestowed the Athenians with the olive tree, standing for the agricultural wealth of the Attic plains, the economic underpinning for the city’s success. Wisely, the Athenians chose Athena’s gift. In Classical times, both the tree and the sea (!) were believed to still be present in this location.
Third, this highly important sanctuary had to be given a form that would offer a valid, dignified and impressive counterpart to its enormous neighbour, the Parthenon, the biggest Doric temple in mainland Greece.
The complexity and irregularity of the Erechtheion are the result of those challenges. Its multiple façades probably represent the various functions, and the difference in height preserves part of the sacred terrain. In fact, the opening in the roof over the north porch coincides with a gap in its floor, under which there is a deep natural crevice in the rock. This was probably held to be the mark left by Poseidon’s trident when he struck the ground in anger.
Unfortunately, scholars do not fully agree on the exact location of the various functions. Ancient descriptions are somewhat unclear, and in the Middle Ages the structure was gutted and reused – supposedly as a harem at times! – so its interior is too damaged to be informative. Usually, it is assumed that the cult of Athena Polias, the protector of the city, with its very ancient wooden statue, was behind the east porch, that of Poseidon behind the northern one and that the Caryatid porch marks the tomb of Kekrops, but numerous alternative theories exist.
The Erechtheion’s distinctive elegance and fine detail are the ingenuous solution to the third challenge. Rather than competing with the Parthenon in terms of size, or imitating its imposing Doric order, the builders of the Erechtheion decided to offer an alternative, a complement instead of a contradiction. That decision gave them the freedom to be creative and original, to design a building that does not follow the architectural tradition of its era, but actually plays with it.
Thus, the Erechtheion carries many messages. Its strange shape speaks of the sacredness of the very ground it stands on, its extensive use of Ionian columns refers to the eastward extent of the Athenians’ sphere and their own Ionic origins, its elaboration shows off the sophistication of the city, and its very uniqueness highlights their creativity and then modernity. Beyond these rather rational explanations, a further factor should be credited as being behind this astonishing structure: sheer inspiration.
Even if you have been there before , it is always worth returning to the Acropolis, to marvel at its beauty and grandeur, including that of the Erechtheion. One way to do so is to join us on our Exploring Athens tour next year!
(An earlier version of this text appeared in the now-defunct Athens News in late 2009)