In architecture, atlantes is a term used to describe male figures used as columns to support entablatures or ceilings. The atlantes originated in ancient Greece and the term is the Latin plural of the word Atlas – the Titan who was forced to hold the earth (or sky in some versions) on his shoulders for eternity. The first atlantes found are ones from the Greek temple of Zeus in Agrigento, Sicily but similar figures have been already made in ancient Egypt out of monolith. Atlantes were later used in many other cultures - including the Roman and Aztec - and played a significant role in baroque architecture. When classical architecture was revived in the 19th century, many buildings included glorious atlantes that look much like the Greek ones.

The most famous atlantes today could well be the ones placed at the entrance of the Hermitage State Museum in Russia. The portico of this glorious building has ten enormous atlantes (approximately three human heights) carved from Serdobol Granite by the sculptor Alexander Terebenev working with one hundred and fifty assistants. Finishing such a grand project was not easy: each of the assistants worked on a specific part of the atlantes while Terebenev himself worked on the faces.

The design was first presented in 1840 and was picked out of two options: one with atlantes and one with caryatids (a female version of the atlantes). Terebenev is responsible for the entire plastic design of the atlantes. The figures were installed at the front of the museum on September 1st 1848. The architect of the hermitage spoke very highly of these sculptures and even said that had the ancient Egyptians made the figures instead, they would have not been any better than the ones Terebenev created.

The figures themselves are standing straight and proud, with their backs arched forward and arms holding the ceiling at head level. The heads touch the ceiling and bend down. The bodies of the atlantes are thin but very strong, with clearly visible muscles as well as ribs. The positioning of the atlantes involves each one of them having his back bordering a column, with two atlantes per column (except for the ones attached to the building which only have one) and six columns. This makes every pair of atlantes face each other.

A Russian bard song by Alexander Gorodnitsky under this title was written in 1965, about the Atlantes of the Hermitage (well, a lot more that, if you look a bit deeper) and I translated it. But this time it has rhymes and I must admit I underestimated the difficulty level of translating rhymes. It's hard. Believe me.


When your heart is not light
And your chest is cold
Come to Hermitage at night
And watch the stars unfold
Where without food supply
Forgotten and alone
The atlantes hold the sky
On their hands of stone

To carry such a content
Is not a painless fate
Their backs are arched with torment
Their knees are strongly bent //see note 1
Their troublesome work
Is most important of all works
Let just one of them tire
And the entire sky falls

Widows will weep in the dark
All the fields will burn
A mushroom cloud will spark
The end of earth will turn
And every year the heavens
Press yet harder still
They shake under the pressure
Of rocket ships’ loud shrill

The lads stand at rest
Their bodied hot as flame //see note 2
So long ago were placed
And no replacements came
They do not sleep at night
Not cheered by light of day
Their beauty, pure and white
Will crumble at war’s way

They stand there for the ages
Their foreheads pressing rock
Not gods – they're mere mortals
But used to ruthless work
Yet hope to live and try
Is never overthrown
When atlantes hold the sky
On their hands of stone

Original Russian version:


Когда на сердце тяжесть
И холодно в груди,
К ступеням Эрмитажа
Ты в сумерки приди,
Где без питья и хлеба,
Забытые в веках,
Атланты держат небо
На каменных руках.

Держать его махину
Не мед со стороны.
Напряжены их спины,
Колени сведены.
Их тяжкая работа
Важней иных работ:
Из них ослабни кто-то -
И небо упадет.

Во тьме заплачут вдовы,
Повыгорят поля.
И встанет гриб лиловый
И кончится Земля.
А небо год от года
Всї давит тяжелей,
Дрожит оно от гуда
Ракетных кораблей.

Стоят они - ребята,
Точеные тела,
Поставлены когда-то,
А смена не пришла.
Их свет дневной не радует,
Им ночью не до сна.
Их красоту снарядами
Уродует война.

Стоят они навеки,
Уперши лбы в беду,
Не боги - человеки,
Привыкшые к труду.
И жить еще надежде
До той поры пока
Атланты небо держат
На каменных руках.

(note 1: this should say "knees pressed together" but it just doesn't sound like the Russian version that says it in two words)
(note 2: this line was changed quite a bit just to rhyme. Original would be "their bodies well sculpted")
(Yes, that’s right, this description is just another excuse for me to make a lyrics writeup of my favourite genre)

Listen to the Russian version from the website

At*lan"tes (#), n. pl. [L., fr. Gr. , pl. of . See Atlas.] Arch.

Figures or half figures of men, used as columns to support an entablature; -- called also telamones. See Caryatides.

Oxf. Gloss.


© Webster 1913.

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