Ancient Greek Architecture: Columns, Capitals, and “Orders”

For reasons beyond my understanding, it seems the subject of architecture has been slightly neglected. Now that I have picked on this, I have taken it as my duty to rectify this issue. Therefore, please ready yourselves for a series of posts where you will learn some basic stuff regarding historical architectural features highlighted by buildings which represent such characteristics. As with everything, perhaps we should start at the beginning…So how about digging into some Greek architecture with me, huh?

The Greeks excelled at the arts, and of course, they were the masters of architecture. Their constructions were made with quality and durable materials. I am sure many of you would be familiar with their use of marble for this purpose, but they also used limestone abundantly. Their style followed architrave and column positioning pattern which is best seeing in the Greek temples, and this is often complemented by walls made of out solid blocks of rectangular stone, without the use of any kind of mortar. But of course, the ancient and classical Greek culture expanded and developed through several centuries and different parts of the world, which had an impact into their stylistic composition. And this is perhaps best seen in the evolution of different type of columns and their capitals throughout the prehellenistic and Hellenistic periods. Interestingly the different types of pillars and their “order” could also be influenced by the use and function of the building they were incorporated into. The Greeks truly believe that building should be done in a harmonious way, with set rules and parameters based on proportion and symmetry. Due to this, the dimensions of certain structures such as temples, would have an impact in the diameter used for the columns. And this is how they rolled. So I will just give you a cheat-sheet on how to identify the different Greek “orders”:

Doric: This is the oldest of the styles and the most important as it sets the base for the ones that followed.

  • The columns lie flat on the floor without a base.
  • The actual column has a large diameter and this distinctive fluting: the vertical grooves.
  • The midlenght of the column has a higher diameter than the base or the top.
  • Their capitals are basic, with a rectangular shape on top of a convex shape. There are called abacus and ovolo.
  • The epitome of Doric architecture is, of course, the Parthenon, and you do not have to go all the way to Athens to get a look at it: just pop down to the British Museum to see some bits! The Parthenon dated from the 5th century BC, so what is traditionally considered as the classical greek period, and it would have originally stood in the acropolis. The architects that worked on Athena’s temple were Ictinus and Callicrates, with Phidias doing the design for the sculptures of the goddess that would have sat in the interior and exterior of the complex: Athena Parthenos and Promachos, the colossal effigy of the deity which is now lost to the ages. It is no coincidence that the greatest temple of Hellenistic Greece came at a time of victory success. This is an aspect of architectural design that has not been modified throughout time: commemoration and political propaganda. Because, of course, the erection of the Parthenon begins following the Battle of Marathon. Therefore, this structure was as much a commemoration of Athenian victory under the patronage of the goddess of war, but at the same time a way of reflecting Athenian society and identity: their political ideologies, the concept of ‘demos’ from which we get Demokratia was ingrained in these type of constructions.

Ionic: this style originates in the region of Ionia (modern-day Turkey) during the Archaic period, and spreads quickly to the Aegean islands as well as Attica where it was extensively used in the 5th century BC.

  •  These are perhaps the columns many of you would remember because of the volutes, which are seemingly of Persian origin.
  • These columns do have a base in 3 levels: krepis, stylobate and the normal base. these are usually escalated. And on top of the base, the shaft of the pillar stands on a small platform made of 3 rounded shapes – concave – convex – concave.
  • The shaft is considerably slimmer than Doric and the fluting pattern is more stylised.
  • One of the best examples of Ionic design can be found in the Erechtheion (Athen Akropolis), on its north side, the famously known porch of the Caryatids, where some of the Ionic columns were replaced by the karyatides: the standing maiden column-sculptures. One of them is also at the British Museum. It seems that the origin of these female standing figures as support mechanisms within buildings may trace back to Phoenician traditions and the archaic Greek sculptures of drapped figures. The fact that these columns were replaces is perhaps not so surprising, as Vitruvius considered the Ionic style to be female, as opposed to the Doric which due to its less graceful characteristics he thought to be male.

Corinthian: This style became predominant of the Late Classical period ( 430-323 BC), the earliest dated from 427 BC in Bassae. Nevertheless, this is perhaps the most renown of the three greek orders as it was heavily used and adapted by the Romans, following which became rather popular during the Renaissance and Neoclassical revivals centuries later. Its name suggests that the style originated in Corinth as a variation of the ornamentation of Ionic pillars.

  • This style is the most ornamented, luxurious and complex of them all.
  • The motif is characterised by the naturalistic and phytomorphic elements, such as the commonly known as acanthus leave and cauliculus.
  • One of the clearest examples of what Corinthian example was about is the Olympeion (Athens), the temple dedicated to the Olympian Zeus. The state of preservation of the actual structure is impressive, but so is its size. This was the monumental, colossal style that so attracted the Romans years later. In fact, the complex was so big, its construction continued well into the Roman period. This is also a good example of the use of limestone in Greek buildings.

And this is all for now. But I shall be back with more details on the history of architecture and its development.






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