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Work Relief from the base of a statue

Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Classical Greek Art (5th-4th centuries BC)

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Classical Greek Art (5th-4th centuries BC)

Author(s):
Astier Marie-Bénédicte

This low-relief reproduces part of the decoration found on the bases of devotional statues made by Alcamenes in circa 420 BC and worshipped in the Temple of Hephaestus on the agora in Athens. The birth of Erichthonius, first king of Athens, is part of a series of legendary births depcited on bases throughout Attica. Gaia (the Earth), half-emerging from the ground, holds out her child to the goddess Athena, in the presence of Erichthonius' father, Hephaestus, and Aphrodite.

The birth of Erichthonius

Formerly in the Albani collection, this Roman low-relief (of which the upper part is entirely modern) appears to have been made in the second century AD from a late fifth-century BC Greek original. It reproduces part of the decoration found on the bases of the devotional statues made by Alacemenes for the Temple of Hephaestus on the agora in Athens. The scene depicted - the birth of Erichthonius, first king of Athens - is closely bound up with the mythical origins of the Athenian people. Hephaestus was pursuing Athena with his attentions, when a drop of his sperm fell on her woolen garb, soiling it. Disgusted, the goddess threw it on the ground. Gaea (or Ge), the primordial goddess of the earth, took the garment into her bosom and bore Erichthonius - whose name comes from the Greek "eri" (wool) and "chthonios" (under the ground). Depicted with half of her body emerging from the earth, Gaia holds the baby out to Athena, while Hephaestus and Aphrodite look on from either side. Another fragment, from the villa of the Emperor Hadrian at Tivoli, depicts the same event with slight variations, such as the presence of male figures and a young woman leaning against a tree, none of whom figure in the Albani relief.

An echo of the work of Alcamenus

In spite of the liberties taken by the copyist, the Albani relief reflects the art of Alcamenes both in the postures of the figures and in the handling of the drapery. The Athenian sculptor, a pupil of Phildias and a master of classical Greek sculpture, made the statue bases for the Temple of Hephaestus some time around 420 BC. In the left-hand part of the relief, a female figure can be glimpsed leaning on a pillar, an echo of one of the sculptor's most accomplised works, Aphrodite of the Gardens. Leaning on a column across which falls the ample drapery of her coat, the goddess is shown with her left shoulder and breast bare and her legs crossed, in accordance with the cleverly off-balance posture of the original. This statuary type was copied many times during the Roman imperial period and is illustrated in the Louvre by two marble replicas.

A legendary figure of Attica

Erichthonius is a legendary figure of Attica. The Athenians believed they had been born out of the earth, in accordance with the legendary birth of their ancestor and sovereign. For this reason, local artists drew repeatedly on the story. The decoration of this relief forms part of a series of statue bases depicting miraculous births found throughout Attica. According to the legend, Erichthonius contributed to the fame of Athens by introducing the use of money in Attica, founding the cult of Athena, and creating the Panathenaea festival in honor of the goddess.

Bibliography

Holtzmann B., L'Acropole d'Athènes : monuments, cultes et histoire du sanctuaire d'Athéna Polias, Picard, Paris, 2003, p.28, fig.3.
Kosmopoulou A., The iconography of sculptured statue bases in the archaic and classical periods, 2002, p.126-130, p.242-243, n 61, fig.99.
Martinez J.-L., Les Antiquités grecques. Guide du visiteur, Musée du Louvre, Paris, 2002, p.54.
Holtzmann B., D'après l'antique, Musée du Louvre, Paris, 2000, p.26, fig.3.
Rolley Cl., La sculpture grecque, II. La période classique, Picard, Paris, 1999, p.144-145.

Technical description

  • Relief from the base of a statue

    Second century AD?

    Rome (Italy)

    Italy?

  • Low-relief, Pentelicus marble (Attica)

    H. 0.65 m; W. 1.07 m; D. 0.85 m

  • Former Albani collection; seized by Napoleon after the Treaty of Tolentino in 1797; transferred to the Louvre in 1803.

    The Birth of Erichthonius

    Ma 579

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

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