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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

The Erechtheion Caryatid

The Erechtheion Caryatid - British Museum - Joy of Museums

The Erechtheion Caryatid

This marble Caryatid is a sculpted female figure that was initially part of the Erechtheion, which is an ancient Greek temple on the Acropolis of Athens in Greece. This Caryatid is one of six female figures that supported the architrave in the south porch of the Erechtheion. The woman wears a peplos pinned on each shoulder. A peplos is a body-length garment which was the typical attire for women in ancient Greece. Her hair is braided and falls down her back. The body weight is depicted as taken on the right leg, hidden by vertical folds of the garment and the other leg is bent.

A caryatid served as an architectural support taking the place of a column or a pillar. The Greek term “karyatides” literally means “maidens of Karyai”, an ancient town. In 1800 this caryatid was removed by Lord Elgin to decorate his Scottish mansion, and it was later sold to the British Museum, along with other sculptures taken from the Parthenon.  Elgin also attempted to remove an additional Caryatid; unfortunately, Elgin’s workmen smashed that statue, and its fragments were left behind. Local legend claimed that at night the remaining Caryatids could be heard wailing for their lost sister.

Later during the Greek War of Independence, the building was bombarded by the Ottomans who severely damaged the ceiling and blew up large sections of the walls. Since then the Erechtheum has undergone several restoration projects.

Caryatids in Architecture

The Romans copied the Erechtheion caryatids, installing copies in the Forum of Augustus and the Pantheon in Rome, and at Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli. The practice of integrating caryatids into building facades was revived in more modern times. Additionally, in interiors, they began to be employed in fireplaces and large doorways.

Peplos

A peplos is a body-length garment typical of the attire for women in ancient Greece. It was a long, tubular cloth with the top edge folded down about halfway so that what was the top of the tube was now draped below the waist, and the bottom of the tube was at the ankle. The garment was then gathered about the waist and the folded top edge pinned over the shoulders. The folded-down top of the tube provided the appearance of the second piece of clothing. The Caryatid statues show a typical drapery.

Reflections on The Erechtheion Caryatid

  • How has this statue influenced architectural elements in more modern buildings?
  • In the 1800s, local legends claimed that at night the Caryatids could be heard wailing for their lost sister. Should they set up FaceTime or a video link between the two museums for the sisters to meet again after 200 years?
  • If  Lord Elgin had not faced financial difficulties, he would have used this masterpiece to decorate his mansion. The Romans did the same thing with other Greek masterpieces. Why did the Romans not pillage the Acropolis temples as later conquers and superpowers did?

The Erechtheion Caryatid

  • Title:                 The Erechtheion Caryatid
  • Date:                421BC – 406BC
  • Culture:            Classical Greek
  • Place:                Acropolis, Athens
  • Materials:          Marble
  • Acquisition:      1816
  • Dimensions:     H: 2.28 m
  • Museum:          The British Museum

Explore the Collections of the British Museum

Ancient Egypt and Sudan Collection

The Middle East Collection

Ancient Greece and Rome Collection

The Britain, Europe and Prehistory Collection

The Asian Collection

The Africa, Oceania and the Americas Collection

The Prints and Drawings Collection

Information on The British Museum

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“Everything flows and nothing abides, everything gives way and nothing stays fixed.”
– Heraclitus

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Photo Credit: 1) JOM; Content: Content from Wikipedia articles on the above subjects is licensed under CC-BY-SA 

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