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
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.
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]
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
[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.