Caryatids, those sculpted female bodies that stand in for a supporting columns, have a glamorous architectural pedigree – stretching back at least three thousand or so years. Without doubt the most well known examples are the six that make up the so-called ‘porch of the maidens’ that is attached to the Erechtheion on the Acropolis in Athens. Built in the 5th century BC, the Erechtheion and the caryatids have been copied over and over again, from ancient Rome to London and modern-day Chicago.
Those caryatids we see on the Acropolis today are replicas. One of them was removed by Lord Elgin’s men in the early 1800s and can now be seen in the British Museum, while the remaining five have since been rehoused in the Acropolis Museum in Athens. As strikingly beautiful as the ‘porch of the maidens’ (also called the porch of the caryatids) is, it was in fact added to the temple for very practical reasons. To support the western end of the Erechtheion a 4.5 metre beam was required – and so the two porches were added to hide that beam. This was not the first time a sculpted female body was used as an architectural pillar, the caryatids at Delphi are at least two or three hundred years older. And the use of women as supports on objects, such as ritual basins, and as handles for mirrors is considered to be an even older tradition.
The scurrilous Elgin was certainly not the first to be taken by the Erectheion caryatids. Many centuries before his questionable activities on the Acropolis the Romans used replicas (rather than looting the originals) of these sculptures in the Pantheon and the Forum of Augustus in Rome, and in Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli. And ever since the Erechtheion and its maidens have been inspiring designers and architects around the World.
Not that far from the British Museum is St Pancras New Church, built between 1819 and 1822 in Greek revival style. Designs for a new church in the Paris of St Pancras were called for in 1818, only two years after the British Museum acquired the collection of sculptures brought back from the Acropolis by Elgin. The successful architects, William and Henry William Inwood, drew on a number of Greek architectural features and buildings in their design: the portico has distinctive Ionic columns, above the entrance to the crypt is a replica of the ‘porch of the maidens’, and the octagonal vestibule ceiling and tower were based on the marble Tower of the Winds in the Athens Agora.
Interestingly, when Henry William Inwood heard that his designs had been successful he was in Athens. He immediately set about getting plaster casts of various bits of ornamentation on the Erechtheion. Just as well Elgin was not with him. Although Inwood must surely have been aware of the controversy even then that surrounded Elgin’s destructive actions.
The St Pancras caryatids have iconography that associates them with their position at the entrance to a crypt. They stand in front of a stone sarcophagus, and each holds either an extinguished torch or an empty jug. These specific symbolic features aside, there is no doubt that the tribune at St Pancras New Church is a direct imitation of the Erechtheion on the Acropolis. Across the Atlantic in the city of Chicago is another striking but less derivative imitation of the Erechtheion caryatids.
In 1893 Chicago played host to the World’s Columbian Exposition, a World fair held to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the New World. After the exposition the numerous artefacts and objects formed the basis of the collections of what eventually became the Field Museum. The classical origins of the museum is immediately obvious – the architect responsible was William Peirce Anderson. Although I had seen images of the museum before my visit, I was struck by the overt neoclassicism when I first saw the building. Just look at that striking portico, with its pediment and Ionic columns. The juxtaposition of the museum building with the very modern downtown Chicago with her skyscrapers of glass and metal only adds to the visual impact of this distinctive appearance.
Either side of the portico are balconies that were inspired by the Erechtheion. They each have caryatid pillars designed by the sculptor Henry Hering. The architect said of these sculptures, they are “the finest pieces of decorative sculpture that have been produced in modern times.” Hering was commissioned to produced a number of neoclassical sculptures that were to adorn the museum building. For some reason not all came to fruition. There are in fact four balconies with eight of Hering’s caryatids. Above each of these are low relief panels, also created by Hering, that represent each of the four sections of the museum, namely anthropology, botany, geology, and zoology.
Caryatids, much like quadrigas, crop up all over the World. Some are obviously used for entirely decorative purposes, while others have retained the original function as a supporting pillar. The St Pancras New Church caryatids are supportive, whereas the Chicago Caryatids are decorative as there are photographs showing the canopies without supporting pillars. These are just two examples of one of many distinctive ancient features that are used in more recent settings that demonstrate how our present is heavily influenced by our pasts.
Have you seen any caryatids, old or new? Leave a comment below, or submit a photograph and I will include it here.