Classical Comments: The Ionic of the Erechtheum

by Calder Loth
Senior Architectural Historian for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and a member of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America‘s Advisory Council

Calder Loth

The Ionic of the Erechtheum is commonly acknowledged to be the most beautiful of the Greek Ionic orders.[i] Located in the shadow of the Parthenon, the Erechtheum was erected between 421 and 406 BC (figure 1). The temple was first recorded in modern times by Julien-David LeRoy, who published drawings and a description of the Erechtheum in his 1758 treatise, The Ruins of the Most Beautiful Monuments of Greece, Historically and Architecturally Considered. The Erechtheum was the subject of more in-depth study and comprehensive illustrations in the second volume of James Stuart and Nicholas Revett’s The Antiquities of Athens (1790). It was through this famous latter work that the Erechtheum gained widespread admiration. Although the temple is best known for its unique Caryatid porch, the Erechtheum’s distinctive Ionic order has been employed to adorn countless buildings throughout the western world.

Figure 1. Erechtheum, Athens (Loth)

As shown in Stuart and Revett’s detailed illustration, the order’s exquisitely detailed capitals are distinguished by a wide band or necking between the astragal and the egg-and-dart echinus. The band is decorated with foliage ornaments, in this case stylized palmettes alternating with anthemions or honeysuckle motifs (figure 2). A beautifully carved braided band tops the echinus. The Erechtheum’s volutes are the most complex of all Greek Ionic capitals, having a series of tightly spaced creases or canals resembling fine drapery. The central swag in the canals, a characteristic feature of Greek Ionic capitals, emphasizes the drapery-like character. Bead-and-reel bands highlight each of the ridges in the sides of the volutes. The egg-and-dart motif is repeated on the abacus.[ii]

Figure 2. Stuart and Revett, Plate XI, Vol. II, Chap.II.

Exposure to the elements, including the polluted air of modern Athens, has eroded much of the crispness of the Erechtheum’s marble capitals. Their original beauty can be better appreciated by observing the north corner column of the Erechtheum’s east portico, on display in the British Museum (figure 3). Thomas Bruce, 7th Lord Elgin removed the column along with the famous Parthenon sculptures between 1801 and 1812.[iii] The British Museum acquired Elgin’s collection of antiquities in 1816 where it has remained ever since.  For better or worse, the column has been spared the weathering that has worn the rest of the temple. A cast-concrete copy now stands in its place on the Acropolis. It should be noted that Stuart and Revett’s illustration of the Erechtheum column capital, shown here, is of a capital of an engaged column on the temple’s west elevation, while the British Museum column is from the east portico. The west elevation capitals have scrolled flourishes between the palmettes and anthemions that are lacking on the otherwise identical east portico capitals. For whatever, reason, Stuart and Revett did not include a shaded engraving of the east portico capitals.

Figure 3. Erechtheum column, British Museum (Loth)

Probably the earliest use of the Erechtheum Ionic on a modern building is found on Litchfield House, a stately London townhouse at 15 St. James’s Square, designed by James Stuart and completed in 1766 (figure 4). The capitals on its engaged tetrastyle portico are faithful replicas of the Greek originals. However, the Litchfield House capitals were produced from Stuart’s own drawings; the engraved illustrations in Antiquities of Athens were not published until more than two decades later.

Figure 4. Litchfield House, London (Loth)

The earliest American building to employ the Erechtheum order is B. Henry Latrobe’s Baltimore Cathedral (now the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary), begun in 1806 (figure 5).  The capitals here are slightly simplified versions of the originals. For instance, the abacus on Latrobe’s capitals lacks the egg-and-dart decorations (figure 6). Latrobe also employed a plain astragal rather than one enriched with a bead-and-reel molding. The large scale of the cathedral’s columns (compared to the Erechtheum’s) probably dictated the simplification.

Figure 5. Baltimore Cathedral (Loth)

Figure 6. Baltimore Cathedral capitals (Loth)

The most prodigious display of the Erechtheum Ionic anywhere is Robert Mills’ colonnade on the east elevation of the U.S. Treasury Building in Washington, D.C. (figure 7). Begun in 1830, the colonnade extends for thirty columns along 15th Street, exclusive of the end pavilions, which include two additional columns each.[iv] The order is repeated on the portico of Ammi B. Young’s south elevation added in 1852-55. The Treasury Building’s south elevation is familiar to all Americans as the image on the reverse of every ten-dollar bill. Like Latrobe, both Mills and Young utilized a slightly modified version of the order, the most conspicuous difference being the use of a tongue-and-dart molding on the abacus instead of an egg-and-dart molding (figure 8).

Figure 7. U.S. Treasury Building colonnade (Loth)

Figure 8. U.S. Treasury Building south portico detail (Loth)

Architects in continental Europe made as much use of the Erechtheum Ionic as their counterparts in Britain and the United States, particularly for highly prestigious commissions. The great German architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, embellished the façade of his 1830 Altes Museum in Berlin with an eighteen-column colonnade in the Erechtheum Ionic. Likewise, Schinkel’s other Berlin masterpiece, the 1821 Schauspielhaus (now known as the Berlin Konzerthaus), employs the Erechtheum order on its monumental hexastyle portico (figure 9). Like Mills and Young, Schinkel substituted the tongue-and-dart molding on the abacus for the egg-and-dart molding (figure 10).

Figure 9. Schauspielhaus, Berlin (Loth)

Figure 10. Schauspielhaus, portico detail (Loth)

Following the recognition of Greece as an independent nation in 1832, the city of Athens witnessed an extended period of development. For many of the new buildings the architects drew inspiration from the country’s ancient classical heritage. Among the city’s impressive Neoclassical public buildings is the Academy of Athens, designed by the Danish architect Theophilos Hansen. Erected between 1859 and 1887, Hansen’s elegant work has its main portico based on the east portico of the Erechtheum. Hansen highlighted the building’s details with a polychrome scheme of blue and gold inspired by ancient precedent (figure 11).  For the capitals of the freestanding columns flanking the portico, Hansen employed volutes in the style of the Temple of Apollo at Bassae, while the necking ornament follows that on the Erechtheum. Hansen also made use of the Erechtheum Ionic for the interior of the Austrian Parliament House in Vienna.

Figure 11. Academy of Athens, portico detail (Loth)

Continuing the tradition established by Schinkel in the use of the Grecian style for an art museum, the Russian architect Roman Klein designed an adaptation of the Erechtheum’s east portico for the façade of his Pushkin Museum in Moscow, completed in 1912 (figure 12). Klein was from an ethnic German family but was born and trained in Russia. Although he worked in a variety of historic styles, his Pushkin Museum portico is among the period’s most archaeologically correct interpretations of the Erechtheum’s east portico.

Figure 12. Pushkin Museum, Moscow (Loth)

During the American Renaissance movement, from the 1880s to the 1940s, the Erechtheum Ionic was the preferred version of the Greek Ionic orders. Examples of the order can be seen on facades, porticos, and porches in most any city or town throughout the United States. Erechtheum Ionic spotting thus can be an engaging pastime for architectural buffs. Walking up New York’s Fifth Avenue across from Central Park, one is not surprised to encounter a townhouse entry with finely carved Erechtheum capitals (figure 13). In the early 20th century, architectural supply companies pressed out thousands of Erechtheum capitals in various composition materials. Typical is a somewhat modified example on a 1913 mansion on Richmond Virginia’s Monument Avenue (figure 14). Erechtheum Ionic capitals are still readily available from numerous architectural ornament manufacturers, although the quality can vary significantly. It is hoped that greater appreciation of the subtle elegance of this most beautiful of all Ionic orders will encourage more use of the Erechtheum Ionic in contemporary classical works.

Figure 13. Erechtheum Ionic, Fifth Avenue, New York City (Loth)

Figure 14. Erechtheum Ionic, Monument Avenue, Richmond (Loth)

[i] The Erechtheum is sometimes referred to by its Greek name: Erechtheion.

[ii] A similar capital is on display in Delphi, but it lacks the refinement of the Erechtheum capitals.

[iii] Elgin also removed one of the caryatids and sections of the Erechtheum’s cornice. These objects are also on display in the British Museum.

[iv] The colonnade columns were originally constructed of Aquia Creek sandstone but were replaced in 1908 with duplicates of granite.

7 Responses to Classical Comments: The Ionic of the Erechtheum

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  2. Todd Sanders says:

    Mr. Loth,
    I really enjoy reading your articles. I heard you speak at Mount Vernon in November of 2008 about the restoration of the Virginia State Capitol. Interestingly, my department was in the middle of the re-restoration of our 1840 old state capitol. I very much enjoyed your program and can relate to still needing a slide projector. Speaking of the Old Capitol, after reading this article, I double checked and the ionic portico of the Old Capitol is inspired by the Erechtheum. I know that the architect, William Nichols, had a copy of Stuart and Revett. Apparently, he referred to it often. The columns do appear to be quite similar to the plate from Stuart and Revett.
    Thank you.
    Todd Sanders
    Historic Preservation Division
    Mississippi Department of Archives and History

    Reply »
    • Calder Loth says:

      Dear Todd Sanders,
      You are correct. The portico of the Old Mississippi State Capitol is a fine example of the Ionic of the Erechtheum, as is the Senate Chamber. Moreover the interior also has a good display of the Tower of the Winds order. Indeed, Mississippi is filled with outstanding applications of Grecian forms and details.

      thank you for the feedback.
      Calder Loth

      Reply »
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  4. Carl P. Lindon says:

    Dr. Loth,
    As ever your essay is enlightening and re-invigorates my life-long interest in classical Greek architecture. This particualar essay is an excellent treatise of what is, in my opinion, probably the most refined of all Greek temples of any order with all its myriad of architectural details. Whilst justifiably concentrating on the capital you have however ommitted to elaborate on the highly ornate base of these columns. Are you aware of any revival Ionic of the Erechtheum buildings which have, in any degree, replicated the “interwoven rope” motif demonstrated uo the upper torus on these bases? Any references or links to photos whould be greatly appreciated. Finally, what would be the correct terminology for the motif featured on these bases?
    Thanks and Cheers

    Reply »
  5. Claire Bonney says:

    Dear Mr. Loth,
    May I use your beautiful photograph of the Treasury Building colonnade as background material to a book I am trying to self-publish on architecture in upstate New York?

    With many thanks for your attention,

    Claire Bonney

    Reply »
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