Greece - The Propylaea
( Originally Published 1899 )
WHETHER it be a great book, a great symphony, a great opera, or a great temple, it is possible to heighten the effect and the expectation by a great introduction. So Gibbon wrote the introduction to his history nine times ; so Beethoven wrote and re-wrote his overture to "Leonore; " so Wagner scored his marvellous overture to "Tannhauser" and his dreamy Vorspiel to " Parsival." Thus the evangelists wrote the mystic proem to John and the poetic prelude to St. Luke. So, too, Pericles inspired the marble proem to the Parthenon.
The Propylaea, as its simple name implies , is a prelude, a Vorspiel, an overture in stone. It was built on the rocky slope of the Acropolis and constituted one of the grandest approaches to a temple ever reared.
In this matter some of the greatest cathedrals of England and the Continent are sadly lacking. The approach to St. Peter's diminishes rather than height-ens the effect. St. Paul's, London, is set within the busy mart; Lincoln and Ely are hedged in by other buildings; Cologne needs twice as much room. Salisbury is one of the few English cathedrals which, set within the beautiful close of Sarum, preserves with leisurely greensward and a fine colonnade of trees a fitting prelude. Our own Capitol at Washington, crowning a genial acropolis, has also a worthy approach.
The Acropolis of Athens, though its summit was levelled and its surface extended, was too small for a great esplanade. The Propylaea placed on the top would have concealed or diminished the Parthenon ; but it could be built on the stern slope of the rock in spite of the great difficulties encountered. This was not the first time that such an undertaking had been successfully attempted. The student who has leisure to study the Propylaea finds it suggestive of both history and prophecy. The whole Acropolis, indeed, is a palimpsest of stone full of riddles and revelations. If you question this magnificent portico, it will tell you four things at least, first, that there was an older Propylaea here before the Persian descent upon Athens; secondly, that after its destruction by the Persians it was restored ; thirdly, that under Pericles a new and grander structure was raised ; and fourthly, that the architect did not complete the work according to his original intention, but was obliged to finish it provisionally in such a way as not to sacrifice his more perfect plan.
Only one of these things is immediately obvious to the traveller, the building he sees before him ; the others must be painstakingly sought out. To understand what is above the surface, you must go below it. As the Parthenon does not wholly efface the piety and labor which were wrought into the temples which preceded it, so the Propylaea does not wholly conceal the foundations of the building which was reared and sacrificed before it was conceived. Fresh, vital, and imposing as is the later structure, it is also full of reminiscence.
We know, to begin with, that here on the top of the slope of the Athenian Acropolis in early times was a tower or building; not a military defence, but a gate-way such as Pericles erected. We can see how the marble was worked in this pre-Persian time, how large were the squares of stone. It was built in a grand way. We can see the external side of the old building; we can see the course of the protecting wall and how the old Cyclopean walls were hidden with marble. Then we see how in the post-Persian times Themistocles or some one else had restored the ancient structure and covered it so as not to show what it had suffered.
As the old Propylaea was made a fitting introduction to the old temple on the Acropolis, so Pericles determined that the new building should be a suitable approach to the new temple. The Parthenon had been finished a year (438 B. C.) before the Propylaea was begun. It is hard to believe that so much as we see was built in five years. The lines of the new Propylea deflect somewhat from the old. One can see the inner side of the wall of the earlier building and trace its direction, which was adapted to the old way up the Acropolis. One understands, too, why the Propylaea of Pericles was turned so as to harmonize with the position of the Parthenon.
The Propylaea is built of Pentelic marble. It consists of a great central wall in which are five doors or openings, approached through Doric and Ionic colonnades, while two great wings flanking the entrance formed large halls designed for paintings. The architectural difficulties of building such a structure at different elevations on the upper side of this rock were great indeed, and the mechanical difficulties of hand-ling the vast blocks of marble in beam and architrave would not seem light to a modern builder if his supply of steam or electricity were cut off. The Greeks must have known how to make cranes before they built temples. That they knew, too, how to put stones together, the wall on the south side of the Propylea well attests. Although earthquakes and explosions have shattered the building and thrown down many of its columns, the joining of the blocks in this wall is so perfect that the seams can scarcely be felt as you run your hand up and down the smooth white marble.
An interesting feature of the Propylaea, as of the Parthenon, is its persistent reminiscence of the wooden structure, especially in the doors and doorways. There are cuttings in the wall which seem to indicate the fastening of a wooden door. Panels are also cut into the marble in a way that would be meaningless in a stone building except as they show how a plank could be set in and held against springing. Wooden doors and door-jambs could thus have been used. But in some cases it is merely servile imitation, as when the architect in some of his pilasters imitates literally the upright wooden plank at the end of a wall, whereas, if less hampered by traditional forms, he might have made something more beautiful. Dr. Dorpfeld, who has shown in detail this repetition and imitation of the wooden structure, finds in it a proof of the essential conservatism of architecture.
The large hall on the northwest wing we can easily believe was adorned with paintings. There are signs of nailholes where the corners of the stones come together, but we cannot be sure that they were not made in later times. The walls themselves may have been frescoed.
It is a question whether the exterior of the building was painted. There are indications that not the whole but parts of it were thus treated. Some of the triglyphs are of pores stone. We cannot suppose that this cheaper stone would be used in a prominent and exposed position in a marble building. That is contrary to Greek usage and example. It might have been used, however, if it were covered with stucco and painted. So long as wood prevailed in marble buildings for beams and other purposes it was painted ; and, when afterward the marble structure imitated the wooden form in which it had its origin, it was still natural to decorate the same parts. Thus the triglyphs representing the ends of the beams were colored, and also the drops. In later times, therefore, portions of the building which were to be painted could be made out of pores instead of more costly marble. Why should not the gods, who see everywhere, approve such pious economy? At Olympia, for instance, there was no Pentelic marble, nothing but a quarry of coarse shell conglomerate. When the great temples which gave renown to that place were built, this conglomerate was covered with white stucco, which gave it the appearance of marble. Such a veneer the gods could not disdain.
Grand as was the Propylaea, there is evidence that the plan of the architect was still grander. The southwest wing was evidently intended, when the plans were drawn, to be as large as the northwest wing. Mnesicles had laid it out without perhaps considering how far it would interfere with monuments and offerings already in existence and thus encounter conservative or priestly opposition. When this opposition was aroused he was therefore obliged to finish it off in a provisional way. He assumed, how-ever, that its final completion was only a matter of time and so finished it in a manner that would not interfere with his plan when work was resumed. This is hinted in the character of the pilaster at the end of the southwest wing. It was evidently set up so that later it might bear an architrave, like the pilaster on the opposite wing. This was the architect's expectation. One of the columns was left unfinished at the bottom, to be " worked off," as the artisan's habit was, after the upper part was completed.
Pericles and his architect at this south side of the building probably ran against two rather hard obstacles : one the old Cyclopean wall which crossed the hill at this point, the other the indurated prejudice of the priests. Both were made of traditional material, and of the two the religious prejudice was no doubt the more stubborn.
The architect temporarily accommodated himself to both. The wall of the wing was cut off sharp where it met the Cyclopean wall. We can easily imagine the arguments the priests advanced against extending this building so as to interfere with established monuments and sacred precincts. We meet the same arguments today against the introduction of new and more beautiful and equally devout ideas, whether framed in words or in marble. But the same reverent conservatism, more intelligent and clear-eyed, has also protected us against inroads of vandalism and hideous innovations in art and religion.
Dr. Dorpfeld has developed, with fascinating probability, the thought of the architect not only in regard to this southwest wing, but concerning a larger plan for the whole structure. As you go around to the external wall of the north wing, where it stands ex-posed towards the east, you see a cornice or frieze on the outside that was obviously intended for the interior of a room. In the middle there is a square hole in the upper wall, for a beam or stringer. There is a corresponding hole on the south side. These and other prophetic details indicate that a hall as large as that of the northwest wing was to flank the gateway and fill out the corner on the northeast. Symmetry would require another room to fill out the southeast corner, and thus the great central gateway would have been flanked by two large halls on each side, filled with votive paintings. That would have meant a partial encroachment on the sacred precincts of Artemis Brauronia, and undoubtedly the removal of some of the statues which Pausanias mentions.
Though noble in intention and execution, the Propylaea is distinguished, too, by a fitting humility; the roof rises no higher than the stylobate of the Parthenon. It was built in subordination to the building for which it was the prelude. It was made not to dwarf or darken the supreme temple, but to lead up to it. The Propylaea is the beautiful frontlet on the stern brow of the Acropolis, the Parthenon is still the crown of Athene's holy hill.
Close to the south wing of the Propylaea, and involved with it in questions of structure and chronological precedence, is the beautiful little Temple of Athene Nike, or the " Wingless Victory," as it is commonly and less accurately called. This temple is so small that it might be put into a corner of the Parthenon. It is only eighteen feet wide and twenty-seven feet long; and its Ionic columns are but thirteen and one-quarter feet high. It was removed from the corner of the Acropolis to make place for a Turkish battery; but afterwards the scattered blocks of the temple were found and laid up again by loving hands, so that we have substantially the original building, though we cannot fully reconstruct with the imagination the beautiful friezes which once adorned it. Some of the exquisite reliefs from the balustrade are in the Acropolis Museum, and among them the cow led by two Victories, and the graceful, airy Victory assumed to be binding her sandal, though ladies of our party insisted that a sandal could not be fastened with one hand, and that she was probably untying or adjusting it.
If the Parthenon is grand, the Erechtheum is poetic. The Parthenon reveals the nobility of the Doric order; the Erechtheum, the beauty and grace of the Ionic. Who has not seen pictures or reproductions of the stately Caryatides? Lord Elgin kidnapped one of them, but it has been restored in terra-cotta. Another mutilated member of the sextette has been pieced out, so that the original impression of these six Grecian maidens supporting the roof of the temple-porch is substantially renewed for the spectator. When I see them, I recall the strong, beautiful peasant girls of Gastouri in Corfu, who walked with their jars of water on their heads, as if they were entirely unconscious of the burden. So these " Maidens of the Porch " hold up the entablature with perfect grace and ease, as if they hardly knew it was there.
The Erechtheum is a gem of refinement and delicacy. It was set on the most sacred site of the Acropolis, the spot where tradition places the famous contest between Athene and Poseidon for supremacy at Athens. We know more about this old legend than about many features of the exquisite building whose architectural details repay a careful study. ' It is interesting to have a Doric and an Ionic temple confronting each other. They were consecrated to the same deity, but as they represented different orders of architecture, so likewise there may have been a trace of " denominational" difference in their worship, or they may have fulfilled different functions. Was it on theological grounds that Cleomenes, the king of Sparta,Dorian we may suppose to the backbone, was refused admission to the Ionic shrine? Or had local and political differences more to do with it? Just what was the relation of the Erechtheum to the Parthenon is a subject still under discussion.)
Like the Parthenon, the Erechtheum was used later as a Christian church. By the irony of fate the beautiful " Maidens of the Porch" were doomed also to support the Turkish harem into which a portion of the temple was converted. But centuries of service, centuries of enforced publicity, have not bent their forms, reduced their vigor, nor divested them of maidenly grace and charm. And down there in the lower city I can show you Greek maids and matrons who are today heroically, gracefully and strongly upholding the architrave of public duty; who are bearing with patriotic courage burdens which disaster and war have brought upon the home and the state, yet who have lost no womanly grace or serenity in fulfilling the tasks they have so cheerfully assumed. The strong maidens of the Upper City have come down to the plain.