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Caryatid and column from the Erechtheion

Caryatid (South Porch) and Ionic Column (North Porch), Erechtheion on the Acropolis, Athens, marble, 421-407 B.C.E., Classical Period (British Museum, London); Mnesicles may have been the architect. Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

We're in the British Museum, and we're looking at one of the Caryatids from the Erechtheion from the Acropolis in Athens. That's a lot of information. And a Caryatid is a human figure acting as a column. She looks like a column. She does, her drapery falls in what almost looks like the fluting of a column, those vertical ridges. And because she stands in contrapposto with one weight bearing leg, which is the one that looks like a column, and one free leg so that the knee juts forward that drapery is allowed to fall completely free of the body below. This very subtle and very sensitively handled swayed her body, right? The contrapposto is not just in the legs, but even in the hips, which you can't actually see, because of all the cloth, but which were referred to. We have this nice circular form around her hips... Where the peplos just bunches. Right, that tunic that she's wearing, and that pools down around her waist, falling from her breasts in a very graceful way. It's interesting because we're talking about the sway of the body, but by the time you get up to the capital, up to her head, she's straightened out, and she has to be. You know, you can really get a sense of even the specificity, the weight, the thickness of the cloth. You know, the way a peplos worked, it was pinned at the shoulders, but you can really get a sense that this is not a very thin fabric, it's got a certain heaviness to it. Kind of weight to it. It's interesting, if you look at the porch where this came from, there are six Caryatids altogether, four facing forward, and the two on the right oppose the two on the left in terms of the contraposto, I believe with the weight-bearing leg on the outside always to make it feel more stable. This is a sort of sensitivity to... Harmony, balance... Yeah, absolutely. And there's, like, nobility to her that is very much what we've been seeing when we also looked at the Parthenon sculptures again, or in 5th century BC, Greece, the classical era and that sense of ideal perfect beauty, and nobility, and monumentality. But I also find it really interesting, this idea of conflating an architectural element with the human body because that's something that is a very ancient idea, and here it's done in the most, sort of, direct way. Later the Romans will talk about architecture in terms of the human body. Not only in terms of scale, but also in terms of proportion. And here it's taken to the most literal, extreme. And within the same room is the fabulous Ionic column, also from the Erechtheion, which is very graceful, and grows more slender as it rises towards the top, with the lovely Ionic capital, with decorative carving underneath. But having this column here is a really important reminder of the scale of those buildings in the Acropolis, because when you're standing in the Museum you forget... How big these buildings were. ...the scale of these buildings on top of a hill. In Athens, in the way, there's a nice skylight above it, begins to give you a sense of what it's like in natural light to see the stone. And this is, as you said, an Ionic column, which is much more slender, much more graceful column than the sort of heavy Doric, the massiveness that we see in the Parthenon, which is just across the way on the Acropolis. And sometimes, and I think this is a little sexist, but sometimes this order, the Ionic, is referred to as the, kind of, more feminine. Right, more elegant, more graceful, more decorative. And, of course, the female figures are replacing the actual columns, so this is kind of the synthesis of those two. And the lovely fluting that makes this wonderful play of light and dark across the column. Fluting and, unlike the Doric, there's a base. The column doesn't rise directly out of the stylobate. There's this sort of footing, and of course that beautiful scrolled capital.