A popular article I wrote for Minerva, based on academic articles I've published.

Identifying Vitruvius’ Caryatids

The columns carved as women on the south porch of the Erechtheion at Athens have long been identified as Caryatids, a motif described by Vitruvius, the only ancient writer on architecture, but this identification is based on an incorrect reading of the text. Vitruvius, in his treatise De Architectura (I. 1. 5), written on the cusp of the Hellenistic and Roman Imperial periods, is the only ancient source for carved images of women in place of columns on Greek buildings being called Caryatids. The point is worth stressing as many scholars have tried to interpret the text to suit their own theories, claiming he was wrong, and that they, writing today, are right. There are other women in the sources called Caryatids, but these are the dancers from the sanctuary of Artemis Caryatis in the town of Caryae, and the two types of figures must not be confused.

Vitruvius gives the story of the Caryatids as a digression on the necessity of architects knowing some History. Unfortunately the passage is open to interpretation, as some see his story is difficult to reconcile to our own limited knowledge of Greek history. He says that the Spartans sacked Caria, a town that had ‘medised’, meaning supported the wrong side in a war, killed their men, and taken their women into slavery, erecting a monument of the women to commemorate this. The state he refers to is likely to have been Caryae, a city in Laconia (Pausanias III, 10, 7), which according to Xenophon (Hellenica 6.5.25 & 7.1.28) was destroyed in 370/369 by the Spartans after the battle of Leuctra, during Laconian-Theban wars.

It is axiomatic to refer to all female figured supports of the South Porch of the Erechtheion in Athens as Caryatids. It’s uncertain exactly when columns carved as women, such as those on the Erechtheion, came to be called Caryatids in the modern period, but in terms of modern art history, Stuart and Revett, having read their Vitruvius, published the Antiquities of Athens in 1755 and used the term. In 1760 Winckelmann also used the term to describe these figures, as have scholars since then.

One argument against identifying the Erechtheion figures as Caryatids would be that they are on a building we know was erected well before Leuctra. They are also a form of sculpture that had been used before, on three treasuries at Delphi, and so were not all that innovative.

As we noted earlier, scholars have for several hundred years accepted the fact that the columns carved as women on the south porch of the Erechtheion are the figures Vitruvius called Caryatids. The only real voice of dissent was an article by Hugh Plommer (JHS 1979). Plommer pointed out that Vitruvius’ inclusion of the use of mutules on the monument, which are to be found beneath triglyphs, indicates that the figures were placed within the context of the Doric rather than the Ionic order. The Erechtheion is an Ionic building. One can also read into the passage that the figures were ‘burdened’ and physically supporting the superstructure, presumably with their arms, atoning for their sins and that they were not being honoured. They replaced columns and so literally supported the superstructure, but must also have been seen to do so in terms of their pose, bringing in an element of trompe l’œuil. The young women represented on the Erechtheion appear to be being honoured – some even interpret them as priestesses of Athena or the daughters of Erechtheus – and they don’t appear to be too burdened by their task.

The point Plommer raised, namely that the figures on the Erechtheion do not match Vitruvius’ description is a valid one. It has however been largely ignored because he was unable to provide Greek examples of the type of figures that he thought could have been Caryatids. In fact the only real sculptural evidence he had was a relief in Naples National Museum, the so-called Caryatid Relief, which is Hadrianic. It is a simplified representation of a classical structure. In the centre is a mourning figure not dissimilar to the Persepolis Penelope, a type used in Roman art to represent conquered regions. The entablature is not represented as Doric, but this is due to the fact that the relief is schematised. Its inscription, TH ELLADI TO TROPAION ESTAQH, would suggest that it represents the elusive Caryatid Monument. The women, dressed in peploi, the form of dress described by Vitruvius, support the entablature with one raised hand and their poloi, and it is this pose that Plommer suggested was that of the original Caryatid Monument.

The only problem in identifying this relief as representing the Caryatid monument lay in the fact that, as Plommer pointed out, was that no other examples were then known of figures in this pose, and certainly none from architectural sculpture. In the last thirty years a great number of tombs have been excavated and published that had figures of the type Plommer suggested were Caryatids, all around the Greek world, from the centuries after Leuctra, and by examining the pattern in them one can shed new light on the original Caryatid Monument. Three Doric tombs, and a number of other sculptures, can be identified and provide strong evidence in favour of the Caryatid Monument having had such figures, supporting the superstructure with their palms and poloi, just as Vitruvius described. The chronology of these tombs is slightly uncertain, but they all belong to the Hellenistic period.

The first of these is a rock-cut tomb at Aghia Triadha on Rhodes. Four statues of women, carved in the round supported the round Doric entablature of a dome. The figures are highly fragmentary, but preliminary restoration would seem to indicate that they supported the superstructure with alternating raised palms and the poloi on their heads. Their dress, of long peploi, also conforms to the textual source.

The second tomb is better preserved, and was found near Svestari in modern Bulgaria, ancient Thrace; it dates from soon after 300 BC. The tomb was of the so-called Macedonian type, being similar in design to the Vergina tombs, and is extremely well preserved, with much of the original paint still visible on the stone. Ten frontal figures, located on three walls in the main chamber, are in high relief rather than carved in the round. The figures stand on ledges between Doric half-columns, and hold up a Doric entablature. Cut into the limestone, they were fully painted, with much of the pigment remaining. The proportions of the women vary slightly but all are in roughly the same pose. The corner figures have only their inner arms raised, the central figures both, and they bear the architrave on their hands and poloi. Of particular interest are their faces, with their expressions of pain and grief, which are quite unusual in Greek sculpture. Their features are all differentiated and highly individual, with a variety of ages, and they appear to be, highly individual and far from idealized, although perhaps not portraits. The original Spartan Caryatid Monument depicted historical women, so the different types shown on this tomb are an interesting feature, and probably reflex the monument they imitated.

A third tomb, Tomb N 228 at Cyrene, was a rock-cut facade tomb built between around 150-80 BC. At the corners of the facade are Ionic quarter-columns engaged to pilasters; the whole is crowned by a Doric frieze, making this a structure of mixed order. In the centre, between the doors, there are two Caryatids that supported the frieze with their poloi and both raised palms. The figures are carved in relief, and not fully depicted, turning into engaged half-columns with Doric fluting below the knees.

A pair of Caryatids from Mylasa, in Caria, were found with a Doric frieze and a frieze with masks. At the time this was thought to be the location of the city’s theatre, but one has since been found elsewhere in the town, and it is now believed that they might have decorated an elaborate funerary monument of the later second century BC. Both masks and figured supports tend to be part of theatrical iconography, but masks could also be and regularly were used as part of the decoration of tombs on tombs. Vitruvian Caryatids, as we have already seen, almost exclusively were. The inserted heads of the statues are lost. The arms are also missing, but their poses are easy to reconstruct; one arm was raised out to one side, the elbow bent and the palm pointed upwards, the other arm was down. They are likely to have worn poloi, supporting the architrave on these and on one raised hand.

A further type of Caryatid is known through copies surviving at Athens, Tralles and Cherchel. The earliest figure of these, from Tralles, is an eclectic work of ca. 100 BC, but may copy a fourth century original. The type is known as the Tralles-Cherchel Caryatid. As with Vitruvian Caryatids the figures could have supported on their poloi and the palm of one raised arm; those from Tralles appear to have been architectural, and those from Athens come from an Antonine Propylon to the City Eleusinion. The number of examples of the type, their wide geographical spread and the variations in their dates would suggest that they are replicas of well known originals.

Similar small figures can be found on Hellenistic funerary stelae, and on a rock-cut tomb at Limyra. There are many examples, large and small, and the majority of these come from funerary contexts, so whatever the original pejorative intention of the figures when the Caryatid Monument was set up, the form soon took on overtones of mourning. Again Vitruvian Caryatids were used by the Romans, almost exclusively in a funerary context, and they decorated a large number of Roman Sarcophagi, for example an Antonine sarcophagus from Velletri.

Vitruvius described Caryatids in his treatise on architecture, which would suggest that they were an established form of decoration, and it is by looking to sculptures preceding his time that we are able to identify them. Thus there are a number of sculptural examples of the Naples Relief pose, and that this is the type that seems the most likely for Vitruvius’ Caryatids.

The pose, of a female figure supporting with her head and one or both hands, was not new in Greek art, but its use in large-scale sculpture was. The Caryatid Monument adapted the figures to their own means, and provided the catalyst for their being copied in subsequent architectural sculpture for the decoration, at least initially, of tombs.

Photographs of Svestari courtesy of “Visit Bulgaria” – the Bulgarian Tourist Board.

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