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Greek Architecture

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



THE civilization of the " Dark Continent " was many centuries ahead of that of Europe; and, long after art had reached its zenith among the inhabitants of the Nile valley, we find Europe still in the "prehistoric " stage—by which we mean that the people had not yet acquired the art of writing their history in the form of permanent architecture. The earliest traces of European civilization and architecture—if we except the re-cent discoveries in Crete—date back no further than the age of Homer and of Troy; of Atreus, Agamemnon, and his other heroes of the Trojan war (cir. 1180 B.C.). Of the men who lived before these times, and who built up this great civilization, we know absolutely nothing; they have all, as Horace tells us, passed into oblivion :

Brave men have lived in times of old, Ere Agamemnon first drew breath; But ah ! no bard their praises told, And all are lost in nameless death.

They lacked, however, not only the sacred bard, but also that more trustworthy historian of antiquity—the architect. The brave men who lived before Agamemnon left no enduring architecture behind them, and their history—unlike that of the old Egyptians—is a sealed book to us. A few monuments of Agamemnon's period still exist, and supply the only reliable information which we possess of the history of that time; but our knowledge of them must ever remain scanty.

Homer, indeed, sang bravely of the deeds of these men, but in the writings of the old poets it is impossible to separate facts from fiction. "The age of Homer," as Ruskin tells us, "is surrounded with darkness, his very personality with doubt. Not so that of Pericles; and the day is coming when we shall confess that we have learnt more of Greece out of the crumbled fragments of her sculpture than even from her sweet singers or soldier historians."

Although European civilization germinated in Greece, we have little authentic Grecian history before the date of the first Olympiad (776 B.C.). The few remains of buildings of an earlier date than this are therefore of great interest, although they appear not to have had any direct influence upon the architecture of the later, or Hellenic, period. These early structures consist chiefly of fortifications, tombs, and walls, the work of a people called Pelasgi (i.e. sailors) probably Phoenicians, who were the dominant race in Greece at the period assigned to the Trojan war (1180 B.C.), and who preceded, and were totally distinct from, the Greeks.

The most important of these remains are found at Tiryns, the mythical city of Perseus, and at Mycenae, the capital, according to Homer, of Atreus and Agamemnon. Remains of walls are found in many other parts of the country—Cyclopean masonry, as it is called, for the method of construction was suggestive of the work of giants, and tradition ascribed its origin to the Cyclopes. The chief feature of the work is the employment of enormous blocks of stone, irregularly shaped, or coursed, and fitted together without mortar. At Tiryns the acropolis is surrounded by a wall of this character ; a similar wall at Mycenae contains the great Gate of Lions, probably the most ancient example extant of Greek sculpture. This gateway consists of two monolithic piers and a massive lintel : the wall was " corbelled " over in such a way that the lintel was relieved from its weight, the triangular space thus formed being filled in with a sculptured group representing two lions supporting a column which tapers from the top towards the base.

The earliest existing structure in Greece possessing architectural merit; and of regular form, is the so-called Treasury of Atreus at Mycenae. This is in reality a tomb, consisting of two subterranean chambers in communication with one another. The larger chamber is shaped like a beehive, roofed over with a kind of dome, composed of massive blocks of stone laid without mortar. The builders appear to have been unacquainted with the use of the arch, for although the roof is domical in form, as seen from the interior, the structural method adopted differs from the arched, or true domical, construction in a most material point. The stones—as in the Lion Gate and other openings in the old walls of the acropolis—are not built in the radiating form of a true arch, but are laid in a series of horizontal courses, so that each course overhangs the one below it; the space is thus gradually narrowed until the projecting courses meet at the top—an arrangement similar to the roofs over the galleries in the Pyramids. Immense blocks of stone are used in the structure; the lintel over the inner doorway is a single block 27 feet long and i6 feet deep, weighing not less, than 120 tons. The chief architectural feature of the building was the entrance doorway, flanked by columns entirely covered with elaborate zigzag ornamentation, showing a fairly developed style, with traces of Egyptian and Asiatic influences.

These earlier works in Greece are separated from the later development of true Greek architecture by an absolute break in form and construction. Hellenic civilization was developed, not by the Pelasgi, but by the Greeks, or Hellenes, who succeeded them, and it was the art which they evolved—the " classical architecture " of Greece, as it is called—which has been the parent of all the styles throughout Europe in succeeding centuries.

Suggestions were, no doubt, gathered from Egypt and from Asia, but in the main the architecture of Greece appears to have been an original creation. The period during which it flourished was a comparatively short one, for the date of the oldest known building—a temple of the Doric order at Corinth—is not earlier than 650 B.C. For two centuries after this, art progressed until, after the defeat of the Persians, it reached its culmination at Athens during the great Periclean age (460–400 B.C.). A period of reaction then ensued, followed by a short-lived but splendid revival under Alexander the Great, and, on his death (323 B.C.), by a decline from which it never recovered.

The buildings, throughout these periods, upon which the ancient Greeks lavished their genius, were the temples. These differed from the temples of the old Egyptians in almost all points save one—the frequent use of the column as the dominant feature of the design. But the Egyptians built their temples with a view to impress the worshipper by the mystery, the richness, and the grandeur of the interior : for this reason, and for constructive purposes, the columns were placed inside the building. With the Greeks, on the other hand, the temples were comparatively small ; they were not built as vast memorials of the greatness of despotic monarchs, nor were they required for the accommodation of crowds of worshippers. The roofs had not the massive solidity of the Egyptian structures, and few supports were necessary ; moreover, the buildings were designed for external effect. In the Greek temples, therefore, the principal columns were ranged on the outside.

As a rule, the building occupied a conspicuous position, that it might be visible from all points and be admired by all. The Greeks' form of worship was not congregational: it consisted chiefly in prayers offered up outside the sanctuary—from any point within view of the temple—to the deity whose image was enshrined in it. To provide shelter for this image was, in fact, the chief purpose of the temple. Thus the plan was invariably simple. In the smaller buildings, four walls formed an oblong chamber, the naos, in which was placed the statue of the deity. A portico with columns, the pronaos, gave access to this chamber ; the whole stood upon a platform, and was covered by a simple roof terminating in a gable at each end. In the large temples, as we shall see later in the Parthenon, columns were ranged all round, forming a peristyle, and at the back of the sacred cell a second chamber was sometimes added, to serve probably as a treasury in which to deposit the votive offerings. Stone, frequently marble, was the material used in the construction throughout, except in the roofs, which were of wood covered with marble tiles. The perishable roofs have all disappeared, and with them has been lost all evidence regarding the method adopted by the Greeks for the lighting of the temples; for with one exception—the great temple at Agrigentum—the walls of all known buildings of this kind were windowless. The question of the lighting of the Greek temple has given rise to much speculation, the most acceptable theory being that the light was admitted through a row of windows high up over the internal colonnades.

Reference has already been made to the Doric order " of Greek architecture, and throughout this story we shall constantly have to refer to the " classical orders." The term requires a few words of explanation.

To the casual observer, Greek temples would all bear a striking resemblance to one another; yet among the designs there existed three quite distinct styles. Each style was marked by the use of its peculiar form of column, and, accompanying this was a series of moldings and proportions, found only in conjunction with that column. Among the Greeks the "three orders" were called the Doric, the Ionic, and the Corinthian. The Doric order, the earliest of the three, was marked by simplicity, strength, severity; the Ionic was more graceful and ornate ; and the Corinthian, the last to make its appearance, still more rich and exuberant in detail. The Corinthian order had hardly established itself before Greece came under the sway of Rome ; but. with the Romans, who adopted and remodeled the architecture of Greece, it became the most popular, as well as the most beautiful, of the orders.

The earliest example of the Doric order in Greece is the temple at Corinth (650 B.C.), the oldest Greek temple of which we have any record. Several columns of this building, carrying a portion of the entablature, still stand, and show the design to be somewhat crude, yet with all the characteristic features of the order; the columns are monolithic, stumpy, and massive. Later examples show marked improvement in proportion and workmanship. In the Theseum, or so-called temple of Theseus, at Athens (465 B.C.), for example, the shafts are more slender and the moldings more refined. But it was not until the time of the Persian wars that the noblest architecture of Greece was developed, when the Athenians gave vent to their enthusiasm, after the invaders had been defeated, by the rebuilding of the national monuments.

Under the wise rule of Pericles (445–431 B.C.) a glorious period of activity ensued, when architecture in Greece culminated, and the unrivalled group of national buildings sprang up on the Acropolis at Athens. Foremost among these was the Doric temple of the virgin goddess Athene, the world-renowned Parthenon (Gr. parthenos, a virgin), a building which, for beauty of design and for delicacy of workmanship, must be regarded as the nearest approach to perfection of all works ever erected by man.

The Parthenon reveals to us all the leading features of a fully developed Doric temple. The plan, as we see, was simple and regular, consisting of two cells—the sacred chamber and a small treasury behind it. Round these was ranged a peristyle, or series of columns, eight of which formed a portico at each end; each portico contained an inner row of six columns. The whole structure stood upon a " stylobate," or raised pavement, three steps in height.

In conjunction with this plan, let us consider the features which constitute a design of the Doric order. The column of this order, as the illustration shows, has no base, but is set directly upon the stone floor or platform : its diameter is greatest at the foot, and from this point it tapers to-wards the top, not in a straight line, but with a subtle convex curve, or swelling, called the " entasis." Around the shaft are flutes, or shallow channels, twenty, or sometimes sixteen, in number, with a sharp edge between them. Surmounting the shaft is a plain, sturdy capital, made up of a square slab, or "abacus," upon which the superstructure rests, with a circular cushion called the "echinus," spreading out from the top of the shaft to receive the weight from the abacus. The grooves on the face of the column are carried up until they are checked by a band of fillets just below the capital.

The upper portion of the de-sign, supported by the columns, is called the entablature. This consists, first of a horizontal marble beam or "architrave," upon which the weight rests, and by which it is distributed to the columns. Being the supporting member of the entablature, the architrave was almost invariably left plain, lest ornamentation of its surface should detract from its appearance of strength. Above the architrave runs the frieze, which, in the Doric order, was divided into square panels, or " metopes," separated by slightly projecting blocks, called " triglyphs " (three channels), on the face of which are cut vertical grooves.

As will be seen from the sketch, a triglyph occurs over each column, and one between each pair of columns. In many cases the metopes were filled in with sculpture in relief. The remaining portion of the entablature, above the frieze, is the "cornice."

We see, then, that the leading features of the order are the column and its entablature, the latter consisting of three parts—the plain architrave, the frieze, with its metopes and triglyphs, and the cornice. On the underside of the cornice will be noticed a series of marble slabs (mutules), each having a number of small projections resembling wooden pins, or nail-heads.

At the ends of the building the upper members of the cornice are made to follow the lines of the sloping roof until they meet in the centre at the top, while the lower portion is carried along horizontally above the frieze. The triangular space thus formed is called the pediment; and, as the most prominent part of the design, contained the finest of the sculpture with which the temples were frequently adorned.

The main details of the Doric order appear to have been derived from early forms of construction in timber. The architrave represents the beam which would be found in a similar position in a wooden building; the triglyphs correspond to the ends of cross-beams, made up of three planks, or perhaps grooved for decorative effect; and there seems little reason to doubt that the mutules are reminiscences of the sloping ends of rafters studded with nails. The other feature, however—the column—does not suggest a wooden prototype; as we have before noticed, it is probable that the tombs of Beni-Hasan, or the temples of the Nile valley, furnished the rough models from which the Greeks evolved this, the most dignified feature of their architecture.

We have mentioned the Parthenon as the noblest example of a temple of the Doric order. Careful measurements of this building have revealed the existence of a number of refinements in its construction—with a view to the correction of optical illusions—which help us to appreciate the extraordinary thought and care which the Greeks bestowed on their designs. The best known of these refinements is the " entasis," or swelling of the outlines of the columns. The bounding lines of the shaft, which appear straight, are in reality convex—curved outwards from the straight line—to the extent only of three-quarters of an inch in a height of more than 31 feet. This curve is not noticeable to the eye, but is just sufficient to counteract the tendency which exists in a straight-sided column to look hollow in the middle.

Again, the underside of the architrave appears to be perfectly straight. Now, a long, horizontal line, which is perfectly straight, tends to look as though it "sags " or droops in the centre. To compensate for this, the horizontal lines of the entablature are all slightly curved upwards towards the centre, deviating from a straight line to the extent of about 3 inches. The lines of the steps are curved in a similar way.

Another subtle correction is applied to the vertical lines, to counteract the apparent tendency of the building to spread outwards at the top. The columns are not truly vertical, but are set with an inclination, so that they all converge slightly towards the top. The slope could not be detected by the eye; but it was considered that, by affecting the beholder insensibly, it helped to give the building the appearance of repose and of solidity. So slight is the inclination that columns at opposite ends of the temple deviate from the vertical to the extent of not more than 2 inches ; so that their axes, if produced, would meet at a point more than a mile above the ground!

The Parthenon is built of Pentelic marble from the neighboring quarries. All the marble blocks were laid without mortar, and were worked—probably ground together—so carefully that the joints were only visible by occasional differences of color. The columns were built up of cylindrical " drums," which appear to have been first rough-hewn, and then finished and fluted after they had been fixed in position.

Of the sculptures which adorned this wonderful building many fine examples are now in the British Museum, where they form the chief portion of the collection known as the Elgin marbles. When Lord Elgin was ambassador to Turkey in i800, Athens was in the hands of the Turks, who were busily engaged in dilapidating the buildings on the Acropolis, in order to dispose of fragments to travelers. Seeing that the works of art were receiving daily injury, Lord Elgin was induced to consent to the removal of whole pieces of sculpture, which were thus saved from destruction, and eventually found a resting-place in the British Museum.

The bas-reliefs in the metopes of the frieze—executed with remarkable vigour—represented the battle of the Centaurs and the Lapithae; many of these, as well as the colossal groups of statuary which filled the pediments, were doubtless the work of Pheidias himself. Among the pediment sculptures is a noble statue of Theseus reclining. "I should say," said one of our most eminent sculptors, when giving evidence before a Committee of the House of Commons, that the back of the Theseus was the finest thing in the world." In connection with this remark, let us remember that the statue was executed for a position some 50 or 60 feet above the eye, so that it could not be examined closely by any spectator. Moreover, the back of the statue was turned towards the wall of the building and away from the spectator : it could not, therefore, be seen by any one. This example serves to illustrate the surpassing excellence and the thoroughness which marked the work of the Greeks at their best period. Truly

In the elder days of Art Builders wrought with greatest care Each minute and unseen part, for we find in the Parthenon that all the work which was invisible to the spectator was as care-fully and as religiously finished as that which was immediately in sight.

Color decoration was an essential part of the Doric temple design. The Parthenon, at the time of Pericles, did not present a front of dazzling white marble, for the entire building, on the exterior as well as on the internal walls, was richly decorated with color. The frieze, with its metopes and triglyphs, was brilliant with blue and red, the glare of the walls and columns was toned down to a pale yellow tint, and the moldings and capitals were decorated with frets, egg and dart, and other ornaments in dark colors, so that the whole design presented an appearance of richness and gaiety rather than of simple dignity. Time would have dealt gently with the Parthenon, if man had been more merciful. Until the seventeenth century it suffered chiefly from neglect; but in 1687 a terrible calamity overtook it, while the city was being besieged by the Venetians. Athens at that time was in possession of the Turks, who converted the Acropolis into a citadel, and stored the greater portion of their ammunition in the Parthenon. During the bombardment a Venetian shell, falling into the temple, exploded the gunpowder and wrecked a great part of the building. The Venetian commander followed up his work of destruction by breaking up, in a care-less effort to remove it, a large portion of the statuary from the west front. Few attempts were then made to restore the structure, or to protect it from the damaging effects of exposure to rain and weather, and the work of decay went on speedily.

Goodly buildings left without a roof Soon fall to ruin; the unprotected parts soon began to suffer from the wet, and the iron cramps and dowels, which were largely used in the construction, rusted and caused the marble to crack and fall to pieces.

A century later, as we have seen, Lord Elgin prevented the complete des ruction of many of the sculptures by removing them. This action has been keenly criticized; but if ever the end may be said to justify the means, Lord Elgin's action has been justified, for, since the removal of the most precious of the sculptures, the Acropolis has been twice bombarded (1826-1827), by the Greeks and by the Turks, with the result that the Parthenon bears the marks and scars of cannon-shot on all its faces.

Ictinus and Callicrates were the architects of this wonderful building, and to their genius was added that of the great sculptor Pheidias. The temple was in reality a stately shrine for the colossal statue of Athene, 40 feet high, of ivory and gold, the work of this artist. Much of the sculpture was also probably from his hand.

Remains of many Doric temples are to be found in different parts of Greece and of her colonies. Among these the most important are the Theseum—the best preserved of all Greek temples, in a sheltered spot below the Acropolis—the temples at Selinus and Agrigentum in Sicily, and at Paestum in Magna Graecia (South Italy), the temple of Zeus at Olympia, and that of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae in Arcadia.

The Ionic order—the second of the three orders in date and importance—probably had its origin in Asia Minor. Rock-cut tombs which are found there, and the architectural remains at Persepolis, of the sixth century B.C., possess features very similar to those which characterize the Ionic order in Greece. Some curious tombs in Lycia accurate restorations of which may be seen in the British Museum—show the earliest works in stone of a people who had been accustomed to the use of wood, especially boat-building. The tombs take the form of a boat turned upside down, beams, planks, and even the keel being laboriously reproduced in the stone. With such evidence before us, it is easy to understand how reminiscences of timber construction have survived in the designs of those early builders of Greece who drew their inspiration from these sources.

The Ionic order consists of a column and en-tablature, made up in the same way as the Doric, but differing in the details and in the general proportions. The shaft is more slender—from eight to ten diameters in height—and is surmounted by a peculiar capital which forms the most striking feature of the style. It will be noticed that the abacus is small, and that the cushion upon which it rests terminates on each side in a feature like a scroll, which is known as the " Ionic volute."

The column does not spring directly from the pavement, like the Doric shaft, but stands upon a molded base. Upon the surface of the shaft are twenty-four grooves, or flutes, rather deeper than those of the Doric order, and separated from each other by a fillet. The architrave is plain, generally with three facias; the frieze has no triglyphs, but is either plain or enriched with an uninterrupted design carved in relief. A characteristic feature in the cornice is the " dentil " course, a row of narrow blocks or tooth-like projections which—like the Doric triglyphs—are probably reminiscences of primitive forms of construction in wood. The crowning member of the cornice was frequently enriched with carving, which took the place of the color decoration of the Doric order.

The Ionic capital was richer and more elaborate, though less vigorous, than the Doric; it possessed, however, an awkward feature in that it was not four-sided: the front differed from the side, and at the angle of a colonnade the two-sided capital was very noticeable. It was usual, therefore, to treat the corner capital with volutes on the two exterior faces, the scrolls at the outer angle meeting one another at an angle of 45°, in the manner shown in the illustration (p. 47).

More numerous remains of buildings of the Ionic order exist in Asia Minor than elsewhere ; but the finest and most notable example of the style is the Erechtheum, on the Acropolis at Athens. This building shows much variety of detail of the most refined order, and—an unusual feature in the temple designs of the Greeks—considerable irregularity of plan. This is due partly to the difference of levels, rendered necessary by the uneven site; but it is chiefly accounted for by the fact that in the one design were included shrines of several deities—Athene, Pandrosus, and Erechtheus.

The Erechtheum was begun in 479 B.C., and was not completed until seventy years later, so that it was in course of erection throughout the whole of the Periclean period. A unique feature of the design is the little south porch, the entablature of which is supported by female figures (caryatids) in the place of columns. One of the caryatids and some examples of the carved ornament, borrowed from the Assyrian honey-suckle, may be seen among the other treasures of ancient Greece in the British Museum.

The plan of this building underwent alterations in the early days of Christianity, when it was in use as a Christian church ; but the wars of the seventeenth century are chiefly responsible for the mutilated condition of the temple at the present day. When Lord Elgin was in Athens at the beginning of last century, the vestibule was being used as a powder magazine, to which access could be obtained only through an opening in the wall which had been built up between the columns.

The first building to be completed of all those now on the Acropolis was the small Ionic temple of Nike Apteros—" Wingless Victory "--which was erected about 466 B.C. This consists of a square cella with a front portico of four columns.

The building appears now to be in a fair state of preservation ; at one time, however, it had been completely pulled down, and its details built into a Turkish fortress or powder magazine, some of the sculptures being fixed upside down. It was rebuilt about sixty years ago from the old materials.

Perhaps the most magnificent of all the structures ever erected by the Greeks was the Ionic temple at Ephesus, dedicated to the great " Diana of the Ephesians." This building was almost totally destroyed, possibly by an earthquake, so that the very site of it was unknown until it was discovered by an English architect, Mr. Wood, in 1871. The British Museum possesses the sculptured drum of one of the "columnae celata'," referred to by Pliny, from whom we know that there were thirty-six of these sculptured columns, and that one of them was by a renowned artist named Scopas. The beauty of the work seems to justify the high opinion of the Greeks, who included the great temple of Ephesus among the seven wonders of the world.

Although the Doric and Ionic orders were quite distinct in their respective proportions and features, they were occasionally combined in the same building, as in the Propylaea, the noble gateway which gave access to the Acropolis at Athens. In the temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae in Arcadia, designed by Ictinus, one of the architects of the Parthenon, the exterior columns were Doric, but a row of piers on each side of the interior was treated with Ionic capitals and details.

The third order—the Corinthian—was of little importance in pure Greek architecture : it appears to have been used before the time of the Roman conquest, for comparatively small monuments. As used by the Greeks, the order resembled the Ionic in all its features, with the exception of the capital. The most graceful example is the choragic monument erected at Athens (335 B.C.) by Lysicrates, in commemoration of his victory in the choral competitions ; a capital from this monument is shown in the illustration.

The Corinthian capital was the great creation of the later period of Greek architecture. Probably the first suggestions of the form were taken from the temples of the Egyptians, for there exists a striking resemblance between some of the bell-shaped capitals of Egypt and the earliest Greek examples of the Corinthian order ; but to the Greek artists is due the introduction of the angle volutes and of the acanthus decoration which combine to make the capital such an exquisite work of art.

Although the Alexandrian age was an era of great magnificence, it was, in reality, a decadent period so far as art was concerned ; and after the death of Alexander (323 B.C.) architecture never recovered its lost ground. It must be remembered that true Greek architecture ceased almost immediately after the country had come under the baneful influence of conquering Rome—i.e. about the beginning of the second century B.C. Among the vast undertakings of this Roman period was the temple of the Olympian Zeus at Athens, a magnificent building of the Corinthian order, be-gun about 170 B.C., but not completed until 300 years later. When Sulla entered Athens with his army, he carried off several of the capitals and other portions of this temple to Rome, where they probably served the Romans as models of the Corinthian order.

Before leaving Greece, mention must be made of some buildings of which remains exist, other than temples. The largest structures were the theatres for dramatic representations, which were built frequently in an excavation of the sloping hill-side, in the form shown. In the centre was an altar to Dionysus, the space around —the orchestra—being occupied by the chorus; the actors appeared on a small stage, while the audience occupied stone or marble seats, ranged in semicircular tiers. In the theatre of Dionysus at Athens accommodation was provided for about 30,000 spectators.

The Greeks built few important tombs. The most celebrated was the mausoleum at Halicarnassus in Caria—another of the seven wonders of the world—which received its name from Mausolus, to whose memory it was erected by his wife Artemisia (cir. 350 B.C.). The tomb was a splendid structure in the Ionic style, richly deco-rated with sculpture. Portions of the colossal chariot and horses which surmounted the pyramidal roof may be seen in the " Mausoleum room " of the British Museum.

Some of the memorial stones (steles) used by the Greeks were beautifully carved, and it is interesting to notice that on many of them are found sculptured representations of the arch. Although the Greek builders were undoubtedly acquainted with the arch, they appear, so far as our knowledge goes, never to have made any practical use of it. "An arch never sleeps," says the Hindoo proverb; and the Greeks, perhaps rightly, felt that its use would detract from the simplicity and the feeling of repose to which they endeavored to give expression in their designs.

Our knowledge of the domestic architecture of Greece is derived almost entirely from descriptions by contemporary writers, for no remains of importance have survived. The architecture and art of Pompeii savored much of Greek influence, and the Pompeian house described on p. 76 probably resembled in many particulars the houses of the Greeks of the earlier period.

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