Erechtheion – Classical Greek art

erechtheion poseidon

The construction of the Erechtheion, the temple of Athena Polias, is well known thanks to the accounts. It was built in two phases. The first one took place between 421 BC and 415 BC, while the second was between 409 BC and 406 BC. The account is a precious document, which details the organization of the construction, the sculptors, and the wages. We can also find the names of two architects: Philocles of Acharnai and Archilochos of Agryle. The Old Temple of Athena Polias, destroyed by the Persians, retained its function as the Palladion of the goddess, which is a xoanon (wooden sculpture) fallen from the sky. This temple was definitely destroyed by a fire in 406, the Erechtheion then became the new temple of the goddess. The construction rests on the foundation of the Old Temple, which is a strong symbol: it rests on the vestiges of the past.

                     map erechtheion            Grece_athenes_erechtheion3

This zone on the Acropolis is a very dense religious zone. It shows the marks of the fight between Athena and Poseidon. The olive tree is against the West wall and the salted lake of Poseidon is in the back room of the temple. We can also find an altar dedicated to Zeus Upsistos (“Very High”), a sanctuary for Cecrops, as well as one for Pandrosus. The temple is composed of four rooms, and the first and biggest one must have been dedicated to Athena Polias. According to Pausanias, the three back rooms each have a different cult, with one to Erechtheus and Poseidon, one to Boutes (mythic king, Cecrops, was his ancestor) and the last one to Hephaistus. In the North porch, one of the ceiling’s cases is missing. This is not because we lost it with time, but because it was built that way. The architects wanted to remind everybody where Poseidon killed Erechtheus with his trident to revenge his son’s death. This mark is also shown on the floor, and a hole leads into the ground where Erechtheus is supposed to live. The opposite side, the South porch, is supposed to be Cecrops’ tomb. This religious density explains the complexity of the building.
erechteheion east

The East wall is like the other temples’ entrances. It is prostyle (free standing columns), hexastyle (6 columns) and belongs to the ionic order. The West side is more complicated. It is tetrastyle (4 columns) with a retaining wall, a door to go into Cecrops’ sanctuary, and two outgrowths. The retaining wall was hidden by the surrounding wall of Pandrosus’ sanctuary, which dispelled the feeling of a fake entrance. The four columns are linked together by a short wall, and in 409-408 they added a wooden fence on four spaces in between columns, while the fifth one probably contained the golden lamp from Callimachus.

       erechtheion west        erechtheion west drawing

At the top of the walls, the decorations are composed of lotuses, palmettes, astragals, and an egg-and-dart frieze. Then there is an architrave in three bands topped with an egg-and-dart and astragals molding. Over this decoration, we can see the sculpted frieze. The background is made of Eleusis marble, which is blue-grey, and the characters are made of Pentelic marble, which is white and shines under the sunlight.

                                                           detail archi

The main access to the western part is in the North porch. There are two doors, and the one on the right has no decor and goes directly in Pandrosus’ sanctuary. The other door is the best example of the Greek monumental door. It has been restored twice, so only the left side shows the original work. This porch is a the cult place for Erechtheus, therefore this porch gives its name to the whole building.

                    porch north          erechtheion north doors

On the other side, the southern one, there is the porch of the caryatids. It marks the location for Cecrops’ tomb, the first king of Athens. This porch is very narrow, and a staircase takes all the space in the back. Six caryatids (maidens with an architectural function) hold the entablature without a frieze but with an architrave in three bands. On the external side, there is a cavity in the wall. It is not designed to be used as an entrance but it was probably to give offerings. The caryatids indicate the function, since they are khoephoroi, which means “offerings holders”.porch caryatids


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