Caryatid – My Favorite Sculpture

When I was growing up, my parents were pretty intense about exposing me to all the great things that museums have to offer. Where we lived didn’t matter. If there was something where interesting stuff could be seen, they made sure I visited. During our extended stay in the DC area, I was offered a veritable smorgasbord of riches upon which to feast my eyes and feed my brain. Of course, by this time the main instigators weren’t so much my parents, but school, friends, and my own curiosity. How odd that it wasn’t until I moved to NM, hardly a hotbed of high culture, that I finally got to see my favorite piece of sculpture: Caryatid Who Has Fallen Under Her Stone.

I was first introduced to this work from one of my mostest favoritest books:

“For three thousand years architects designed buildings with columns shaped as female figures. At last Rodin pointed out that this was work too heavy for a girl. He didn’t say, ‘Look, you jerks, if you must do this, make it a brawny male figure.’ No, he showed it. 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, […] and victory.”


“Victory in defeat; there is none higher. She didn’t give up[…]; 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.

—Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein (1961)

I’m not alone in using this passage to describe this work. It does it so well and so completely that any other attempt falls short.

I was about twelve when I first read that. Even without seeing the work in life, sketch, or photo, I knew what it looked like and what it meant. It opened the world of art to me. Sure, I’d been exposed to works from masterpieces to dreck that was below the dignity of a landfill, but I never really understood the substance of art until I grokked that passage. Until then, I was like a lot of folk: I didn’t know art, but I knew what I liked. Still, this description of the Caryatid sculpture opened my eyes. And not just this particular sculpture, but the others described as well. Truly a revelation.

Like most people, I didn’t really understand the context of this piece. Since we now have the advantage of pulling in resources from diverse places, I thought it couldn’t hurt to provide it. Let’s start in Athens:

Photo: Stan Shebs

Photo: Stan Shebs

The Acropolis is home to not only the the famous Parthenon, but on the north side there is the building we see above, the Erechtheum. On the north side of this structure (the right side of the photo), you can see the Porch of the Maidens:


Photo: Thermos

OK. Now we have the original context that Heinlein wrote of. Here we have these female figures (caryatids) who are supporting on their heads the weight of the porch’s stone roof. They have been doing it for thousands of years now with little in the way of complaint. August Rodin saw this art, and he created a masterpiece.


Photo: Pablo

This is what Rodin was talking about. You see the disappointment in the face because the load was just too heavy for her, but you also see her fighting against reasonable hope to keep that burden shouldered and maybe raised up again. She knows that she will ultimately fail, but she won’t surrender.

I’m not ashamed to tell you that I have tears in my eyes at this moment. Great art can affect you like that. It touches you. You can see the work thousands of times and you still feel the power of the message. More importantly, you are drawn into the work and can feel yourself taking the place of the subject.

I was elated when the traveling show of Rodin’s works made a brief stop in Albuquerque. Among the collection was my beloved Caryatid. While not as large a piece as I’d imagined, it was just as powerful. Sure, some of Rodin’s works were no less impressive, and some much more famous (and accessible) to the general public, but for me…if only one piece of scultpure were to be saved from Earth’s inevitable destruction, it would be this one. If anything can speak to the human condition, it is most assuredly this.

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