Caryatid

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The matronly women supporting the portch of the Erechtheion on the Acropolis of Athens are the model for most of the Caryatids we know.  Stautesque, strong, solid pillars of the community.  Nothing flighty about these ladies.

There is some debate around the origin of the Caryatid.  In some theories they represent women from the Greek town of Carie near Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum in Turkey).  The town sided with the Persians and when the town fell the women became captives.

Another theory is that they represent dancers in a religious rite to celebrate Artemis.

Whatever the truth in reality generations of matronly women were condemned to a fate similar to Atlas, who supported the sky.  These ladies were fated to bear great stones on their heads.

The giant Caryatids of Winkel Van Sinkel (1839) in Utrecht are nicknamed “The English Whores” or the “Fallen English Women”.  Cast in England they broke the crane offloading them from the ship on which they were transported.

Until the arrival of Auguste Rodin, born November 12th 1840.  Rodin was the sculptor who did to materials what the impressionists were doing to paint, and light, and colour.  Rodin smashed convention.

To my mind his greatest success was with the Fallen Caryatid, exhibited in 1886.  Gone is the solid older woman.  Here is a beautiful young girl.  She has collapsed beneath the weight of the stone.  But it takes no more than a glance to know that it is not the physical weight that overcomes her.  She carries an emotional weight, her despair may be with the world at large or a matter of the heart.  Is this why the role of the Caryatid was heretofore entrusted to older women, matrons done with the emotional rollercoaster of youth?

In that torture of emotions we write our own stories, as Robert Heinlein did in the quote below.  That engagement, our personal investment in an object, is the mark of great art.

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This poor little caryatid has fallen under the load. She’s a good girl—look at her face. Serious, unhappy at her failure, not blaming anyone, not even the gods . . . and still trying to shoulder her load, after she’s crumpled under it. But she’s more than good art denouncing bad art; she’s a symbol for every woman who ever shouldered a load too heavy. But not alone women—this symbol means every man and woman who ever sweated out life in uncomplaining fortitude until they crumpled under their loads. It’s courage, Ben, and victory.”

“ ‘Victory’?”

Victory in defeat, there is none higher. She didn’t give up, Ben; she’s still trying to lift that stone after it has crushed her. She’s a father working while cancer eats away his insides, to bring home one more pay check. She’s a twelve-year-old trying to mother her brothers and sisters because mama had to go to Heaven. She’s a switchboard operator sticking to her post while smoke chokes her and fire cuts off her escape. She’s all the unsung heroes who couldn’t make it but never quit. Come. Salute as you pass…”

Robert Heinlein ; Stranger in a Strange Land