Caryatids: Conference Lecture

I am getting a little tired of talking about Caryatids, which I have published several times in journals - I had wanted to do my new reconstruction of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus - but Peter Schulz (the conference organiser) is wonderful.

Abstract of paper for Architectural Sculpture conference in Athens November 2004.

Dorothy King, Independent Scholar

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, 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.

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.

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 honored. 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 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. 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.