Greek Art part 2: Architecture

In the most basic and understandable definition, we can say that architecture is the art of monumental buildings. The Greek culture, as said in part 1was in constant evolution and learning, giving birth to the foundational knowledge used later by the Romans, even today, in the present.

The type of architecture we are going to analyse on this post is that of public building focusing on the temples, the most important structure in Greek society, a place where they could house the image of their deities and preserve offerings. Private building such as houses, remained simple and modest until the beginning of the Hellenistic period. The Greek temple, nevertheless, was not intended for public worship, that’s why they invented small shrines in the open air (porches with a portico that gave shelter from sun or rain freely accessible to people). They were walled on three sides and open on the fourth (entrance), and they would sometimes be of hundreds feet long.

The architectural orders in Greek temples

Temples followed a function. Their design has a content, a language that the Greek carefully thought of to honor their deities, named as orders. The orders can be thought of as languages that evolved through architectural improvements, communicating a different message, unified by  complementary elements that give form to the temple. The technology  used to get this temples done was post and lintel, a very basic construction method of having two vertical pillars (columns) to support and distribute the weight of a horizontal header (architrave, ceiling or roof).

The column and the entablature were the basic components of the Greek orders. We can easily spot the differences between them, but let’s get into detail and list some basic characteristics:

Style orders in Greek architecture.

Style orders in Greek architecture.


The Greeks knew that by multiplying the post and lintel method, they could eventually achieve the edification of bigger structures. These structures transformed in temples, constantly refining the architectural design to make the next one better and the next one even better than its predecessors. Here are some improvements made over time regarding temples:

The width, length and proportion of columns changed
Architects toyed with the width and length of the temple, finally adopting the “classical formula”: The length of the temple should be twice the number of columns regarding width + 1. In other terms, x=2y + 1
The interior supporting columns were changed in terms of scale, which means they repeated the same column design only smaller, to support the roof in the area of the Cella.

We can spot the differences between columns and supporting interior columns on the image below:

Plan view of different temples

Plan view of different temples

Nowadays, the earliest well preserved temple is Temple of Hera I, where we can easily identify the doric order in the column work. It’s interesting to say that the columns were not a one-piece element, but stackable pieces of stone that would be linked by a metal cilinder (they used wood in the early columns), carved and aligned perfectly so that the continuity of the flute lines would not be interrupted. We can also tell that the temple shows an insecure handle of structure, since the temple unusually has nine columns across the ends, when others have seven. This makes the spanning between doric columns narrower, adding a more bulky look.

The Parthenon, Athens.

The Parthenon, Athens.

In the Classical Period, the Acropolis in the city state of Athens happened. This specific period of Greek art, also known as The age of Pericles, brought Athens to her new political growth and beauty as its renowned today. During his years of  government, he directed the creation and edification of a series of monuments, probably raising the ideal of humanity and human dignity. There were many temples constructed in the Acropolis: Temple of Athena Nike, Sanctuary of Artemis, the old temple of Athena and finally The Parthenon,  the principal structure on the Acropolis. 

It has been researched that The Parthenon could be seen in all its glory when you walked in through the sacred way (see map), showing both front and side view. Most of the smaller structures of the Acropolis have only been identified by excavations, and the sculptures and additional statues are completely lost. But The Parthenon endured through ages, since it was used as a Byzantine church, a Catholic church and a mosque. The exterior remained intact with all its sculptures until 1687, when The Turks, being in war with the Venetians, were using the temple as a powder magazine. A mortar shell struck the building and the resultant explosion blew out its center.

FUN FACT: The Parthenon took 15 years to complete (9 years of construction and 12 years to create the sculptures).

pedimentsThe sculptures that survived the explosion are unique. The east pediment represented the Birth of Athena, the west had the Contest between Athena and Poseidon for the Land of Attica. On both pediments, the climax of the narrative is headed towards the center of the pediment. Inside the temple, a statue of Athena was held in the Cella, where offerings and gifts were placed.

FUN FACT: As the Greeks did with their sculptures, their temples were also painted.

Up on the next slide show, try to identify the differences between the temples shown, it is easy to spot the type of order used. Also, look for the classical ratio of columns, that is also a hint to identify the time period in which the temple was made. With this post, the Greek art posts are concluded, The Romans are up next!

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  • Hartt, Frederick. Art: a history of painting, sculpture, architecture. 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. 1989. Print.

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