The Temple of Artemis is an Archaic Greek temple in Corfu, Greece, built in around 580 BC in the ancient city of Korkyra (or Corcyra), in what is known today as the suburb of Garitsa. The temple was dedicated to Artemis. It is known as the first Doric temple exclusively built with stone. It is also considered the first building to have incorporated all of the elements of the Doric architectural style. Very few Greek temple reliefs from the Archaic period have survived, and the large fragments of the group from the pediment are the earliest significant survivals.
The temple was a peripteral–styled building with a pseudodipteral configuration. Its perimeter was rectangular, with width of 23.46 m (77.0 ft) and length 49 m (161 ft) with an eastward orientation so that light could enter the interior of the temple at sunrise. It was one of the largest temples of its time.
The metope of the temple was probably decorated, since remnants of reliefs featuring Achilles and Memnon were found in the ancient ruins. The temple has been described as a milestone of Ancient Greek architecture and one of 150 masterpieces of Western architecture. The Corfu temple architecture may have influenced the design of an archaic sanctuary structure found at St. Omobono in Italy, near Tiber in Ancient Rome, at the time of the Etruscans, which incorporates similar design elements. Kaiser Wilhelm II, while vacationing at his summer palace of Achilleion in Corfu and while Europe was preparing for war, was involved in excavations at the site of the ancient temple.
The ruins were found during the Napoleonic Wars by soldiers of French General François-Xavier Donzelot as they were digging, preparing for trench warfare.
Kaiser Wilhelm II had a "lifelong obsession" with the Gorgon sculpture, which is attributed to his attendance at seminars on Greek Archaeology while at the University of Bonn. The seminars were given by archaeologist Reinhard Kekulé von Stradonitz, who later became the Kaiser's advisor. Kaiser himself, while residing at his summer palace of Achilleion in Corfu and while Europe was preparing for war, was involved in excavations at the site of the ancient temple.
In 1911 the Kaiser, along with Greek archaeologist Federiko Versakis on behalf of the Greek Archaeological Society and the famous German archaeologist Wilhelm Dörpfeld on behalf of the German Archaeological Institute, started excavations at the Artemis Temple of Corfu. The Kaiser's activities in Corfu at the time involved both political and archaeological matters. The excavations involved political manoeuvering due to the antagonism that had developed between the two principal archaeologists at the Corfu Temple site.
Little remains today on the site, with only the foundation of the temple and other fragments still existing there. However, the existing ruins have provided sufficient information for a complete reconstruction of the architectural details of the temple.
The building was supported around its perimeter by colonnades consisting of two rows of eight columns each for the front and back of the building, while the sides were supported by two rows of seventeen columns each.
At the centre of the temple, there was a rectangular inner chamber or cella 9.4 m (31 ft) wide and 34.4 m (113 ft) long, which was subdivided in three spaces by two colonnades consisting of ten columns each. The temple of Artemis in Corfu and the Parthenon are the only Greek temples with eight columns between antae.
The outer colonnade of eight by seventeen columns, also called the peristyle, had enough separation from the inner chamber that a second colonnade could be added in the interior. The Corfu Temple, however, does not have this inner colonnade, for economy reasons. This configuration of a single colonnade, in a space allowing for a second, is called pseudodipteral. The Artemis Temple in Corfu is the earliest known example of this architectural style.
The front and back of the temple featured two pediments, of which only the western one survives in good condition, while the eastern pediment lies in fragments. The pediments were decorated with mythical figures, sculpted in high relief. This is the first known example of a decorated pediment in Greece. Both pediments appear to be decorated in an identical manner and they feature a large relief of the Gorgon Medusa, more than 9 ft. high. The pediment measures 9 ft. 4 inches high at the centre. The sculptures incorporated in these pediments are considered the first substantial specimens of Greek sculpture from a Doric building. The western pediment along with other architectural fragments are exhibited at the Archaeological Museum of Corfu. The pediment has been described by the New York Times as the "finest example of Archaic temple sculpture extant".
The pediment depicts Medusa in a formulaic, stylised fashion; her feet are arranged in a configuration suggesting rotation, which in turn indicates motion or flight when applied to the attributes of Medusa, especially Medusa's wings. The Medusa is wearing a mini–skirt which allows her legs freedom of movement while she is fleeing from Perseus. Her motion is further indicated by the formulaic positioning of her legs in the so–called Knielauf position which stylistically resembles a swastika.
The Gorgon is shown with a girdle of intertwined serpents; the girdle is a fertility symbol traditionally associated with female reproduction and sexuality. The presence of the snakes, however, adds a demonic quality as well as an element of danger. Two more snakes radiate outward from her neck. The Medusa figure closely resembles "Mistress of Animals" deities found in the Near East and also resembles Mesopotamian demoness Lamashtu who was the equivalent of the Greek deity Lamia.
Her children, Pegasus and Khrysaor, are at each side of her, despite the fact that they were born after her death. The face of Medusa is repulsive and shows an evil "archaic smile". The panthers, flanking Medusa on each side, serve as temple guardians and they gaze outward as if to visually inspect their domain. The smaller size of the guardian leopards relative to the pediment enclosure and their high relief indicates that the archaic sculptor desired to disengage the animals from their environment.
The head of the Medusa figure clashes with the pediment outline and evokes a frightening effect. It has also been suggested that since it is unusual for Artemis not to be depicted on the pediment of her own Temple, Medusa may represent the chthonic or demonic side of Artemis, since both entities were patrons of animals. The function of the Medusa and panther figures is believed to be apotropaic, that is, their function was to ward-off evil and prevent it from entering the temple.
Behind the leopard on the left lies a seated figure. The figure was shown to be attacked by a spear-wielding figure, which has disappeared from the pediment.
Behind the seated figure, on its left, lies a bearded figure of a dead warrior, facing outward from the pediment. Behind the leopard to the right, two figures are shown. The standing figure closest to the leopard is believed to be Zeus who is depicted in partial profile wielding a thunderbolt against another figure, which faces outward from the pediment. The figure is presented with a beard and is kneeling. To the right of these figures, another relief of a dead warrior is believed to have existed.
There are reasons to suppose that the seated figure is Rhea, or Cronus, in which case the scenes depicted to the right and left of the leopards might depict a single subject, the Titanomachy, the battle between the gods and the Titans, which would better fit with a beardless (i.e. younger) Zeus, who is rarely depicted without a beard. There are also arguments that the seated figure illustrates King Priam of Troy being slain by the Greek hero Neoptolemos and that the scene on the left is inspired from the Trojan War. If this is the case, then there are two themes present in the pediment: the Sack of Troy and the Gigantomachy, the battle between the gods and Giants.
Since these figures are not connected to the legend of Medusa, it is thought that the apotropaic function of temple symbols such as the Medusa and the panthers, as guardian symbols of the Temple, is starting to be replaced by the idea of using figures and themes from mythical stories as temple decoration. The decorative function, in time, prevailed over the apotropaic one.
The Gaze of the Gorgon is a film-poem created by Tony Harrison, which examines the politics of conflict in the 20th century using the Gorgon as a metaphor. The narration of the film is done through the mouth of a statue of the Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, which Kaiser had removed from the Achilleion after he took over ownership of the palace from Empress Elizabeth of Austria. The film describes the connection between Heine, the Corfu Gorgon, and Kaiser Wilhelm II who had an obsession with the Gorgon. In the film, Harrison's voice narrates:
...what was Kaiser up to? Excavating on Corfu, the scholar Kaiser on the scent of long lost temple pediment not filling trenches, excavating the trenches where the Gorgon's waiting there in the trenches to supervise the unearthing of the Gorgon's eyes.