The Erechtheion: A jewel in the Acropolis crown
Other structures have just been restored but this temple’s artistry continues to impress
By John Leonard
Much attention and celebration has been focused in recent weeks on the Athenian Acropolis’ newly restored Parthenon, Propylaia and temple to Athena Nike, but 40 meters north of the Parthenon lies another Classical monument perhaps even more architecturally fascinating and historically or religiously significant than all the other buildings on the Sacred Rock: the Erechtheion. The Ionic-style Erechtheion and the sacred shrines it incorporates or stands upon represented the ancient Athenians’ most holy places in the 5th century BC. The Erechtheion held the age-old olivewood cult statue (xoanon) of Athena Polias (protector of cities) – a worn, venerated image that every year was recloaked with a freshly woven peplos during the Panathenaic Festival. The center of Athena’s worship, then, was not the Parthenon but the Erechtheion, whose official name was “the temple on the Acropolis within which is the ancient statue.” The term “Erechtheion” – known only from the 2nd century AD Roman traveler Pausanias and one other historical source – became common only in later times.
The appearance of the Erechtheion was strikingly different from that of other Acropolis structures, since it lacked symmetry, had four distinct facades, and was decorated luxuriantly not only with bright paint but intricately carved moldings, gilded architectural details and inlaid multicoloured glass beads. The diverse, ornate Erechtheion, according to archaeologist Jeffrey Hurwit, was a “sacred multiplex,” an “exceptionally rich jewel box of a temple,” that within its unique walls contained ancient religious curiosities cloaked in mystery.
The Erechtheion, in many ways, is as mysterious today as it was in ancient times. Still unknown and much debated are the date of the building’s foundation, the identity of its architect and the layout of its multipurpose interior. After the Persians devastated the Acropolis in 480/479 BC, the hill’s summit was left intentionally unrepaired, its desecrated holy places preserved as a monument to remind Athenians (and all Greeks) of their defeat and their collective need to repel further attacks. Eventually, however, in the 440s BC, Pericles launched his well-known building program, which gave a fresh, impressive face to the ancient Acropolis.
The Erechtheion seems to have been part of Pericles’ original plan, since the new Propylaia (gateway) and the Erechtheion both include reused column drums in their foundations that had been salvaged from the dismantling of the old gateway in 438 BC. The Propylaia was begun the following year and left unfinished in 432 BC. The Erechtheion can thus also be dated to the 430s, although its construction continued sporadically until 406 BC, when it too was left unfinished.
Parallels between the Propylaia and Erechtheion have led specialists to suggest that Mnesikles, architect of the Propylaia, was also the designer of the Erechtheion: Both structures were cleverly adapted to their sites’ uneven terrain; Mnesikles would have been particularly well positioned to reuse in the Erechtheion the drums from the old gateway; dark Eleusinian marble was exploited unusually for decorative details within the two white-Pendelic-marble structures and a similar design trick – false antae (wall ends) – are found in both the Propylaia’s southwest porch and the Erechtheion’s north porch.
At first glance, the Erechtheion may appear to be a collection of incongruous architectural units joined haphazardly on various levels without any unifying theme but its outward diversity reflects its complex internal function. The building was meant to incorporate and monumentalize at least 10 individual shrines dedicated to goddesses, gods and local heroes related mostly to Athens’ glorified foundation: Athena, Poseidon, Zeus, Hephaestus, Hermes, Erectheus and Cecrops (legendary Athenian kings), Pandrosus (Cecrops’ daughter), Boutes and members of a prominent family (the Boutadai). According to early myth, Poseidon and Athena once vied for pre-eminence in Athens by offering gifts: Poseidon struck the ground with his trident producing only a saltwater well; Athena in turn speared the ground producing an olive tree.
Outside, the Erechtheion had four distinct faces: the elegant, Ionic-colonnaded east end; the blank-walled southern side with its unique Caryatid porch; the low-lying northern side with its own magnificently decorated Ionic porch and finely carved doorframe; and the split-level, Ionic-style western end that overlooked a walled court sacred to Pandrosus that also held Athena’s olive tree and an alter of Zeus Herkeios (“of the courtyard,” protector of the home). The dark marble frieze that runs continuously around the Erechtheion once held starkly contrasting white marble figures pegged in place – an innovative technique never tried again.
Inside, two major chambers existed, arranged to accommodate the many deities and heroes traditionally worshipped in the immediate area. The interior’s precise arrangement remains unknown because the Erechtheion’s 7th century AD conversion into a Christian church erased all traces of its pagan-era organization. Pausanias, however, reports the easternmost room (entered from the east) contained altars to Poseidon-Erectheus, Boutes and Hephaestus (see below). The separate, central room (entered from the north) contained Poseidon’s trident marks and saltwater well, Erectheus’ tomb, Athena’s xoanon, another wooden statue of Hermes, Persian war booty and gold and silver treasure, including a golden lamp with a bronze palm tree chimney that reputedly burned perpetually in honor of Athena and using special flax from Cyprus.
The striding maidens on the Caryatid porch held phiales (shallow libation dishes) in their right hands and are believed by some specialists to have been cult followers of Cecrops, whose ancient tomb lies just below the Erechtheion’s southwestern corner. Their procession may have been a landmark intended to remind visitors of Cecrops’ now-hidden shrine.
Visitors today might especially note the Erechtheion’s elaborately carved moldings and bands, including lotus-palmette chains, egg-and-dart and bead-and-reel work, guilloches and rosettes.
Restoration of the Erechtheion (1979-86) improved the ruin’s structural stability and led to the replacement of its missing northeastern column, long ago carted away – along with one of the Caryatids – and now displayed in the British Museum.
“There is also a building called the Erechtheion... Those who enter find altars to Poseidon (on which they also sacrifice to Erectheus, according to an oracle), the hero Boutes and, thirdly, Hephaestus. On the walls are paintings of members of the Boutadai family and – the building being double – some seawater inside in a well... But the extraordinary thing about this well is that when a south wind blows, a sound of waves comes from it. The mark of a trident is in the rock. They say that these marks appeared as evidence of Poseidon during his quarrel [with Athena] over the land.”