Art History for Normal People: Ancient Greece, Part 2

My Big Fat Greek Blog Post

Art History for Normal People
IntroductionMesopotamia • Egypt • Ancient Greece (Part I)

In our last edition of AHFNP we looked at the development of sculpture in Ancient Greece. Thank you to the many hundreds of readers who sent fan mail in response.

Now that we have seen the general progression of Greek marble sculpture, we can take a look at how it was incorporated into their architecture. It is worth lingering here for a bit because the Romans borrowed pretty much all of the Greeks’ visual vocabulary, and together these two societies’ work forms what we know as classical architecture. If you live in the Western Hemisphere, you likely don’t have to look very far to find classical influences in church or elsewhere around your town. Hopefully this post will shed a bit of light on what you’re seeing.


Art and Liturgy - Porch of Maidens Erechtheion - Greek classical architecture Catholic churchI’ve already written about columns, but here I will mention a fun part of art historical trivia. Feel free to use this one at parties. At a certain point, it became en vogue to use caryatids, which were load-bearing columns sculpted in the form of women. (Atlantids, male forms, were used to a lesser extent.) Today, in church architecture, we occasionally see a modification of this, with angels or saints.

It’s worth taking a longer look at the entablature and the pediment since this is where a ton of development takes place over the centuries.

Typically, an entablature has three parts. First is the architrave, which is the part that sits directly atop the columns. It is usually not decorated and is not that interesting to talk about. Above that is the frieze, which is normally the site of sculptural relief of some kind, for decoration. Linear perspective had not yet been widely developed, so the challenge was to find a way to show a bunch of stuff happening in a clear way. This was not always achieved. Above the frieze is the cornice, which is the part that hangs over the sides and forms the bottom of the roof. Cornices as an architectural idea are still used, even in modern construction, because they form an attractive “cap” to the building.

Nowadays, it’s pretty rare to see churches with real sculptural relief inside, even if the building borrows many or most other elements from classical architecture. A popular thing today is to add text around the entablature: perhaps a prayer or some relevant verse from Scripture.

The other element worth examining is the pediment, which is the triangle formed by the roof. This became a space for artists to show their creativity and cleverness. Look at the pediment from the Temple of Medusa in Corfu, c. 580 BC:

Temple of Medusa - Greek sculpture and classical church archi

See those tiny little guys in the corners? This was mind-blowing at the time, and it became all the rage to try to fill this space in clever ways. Now, behold what remains of the western pediment of the Temple of Apahaia, just 100 years later:

Temple of Aphaia - Greek sculpture and classical church architecture

Notice all the different postures, ending with the dying warriors on the sides.

Unlike the Egyptians or Mesopotamians, the Greeks personified their gods, giving them human (but not necessarily humane) qualities. Although in legend they lived on a distant mountaintop, these deities were in many ways relatable, and temple architecture reflects this shift with its generally smaller scale. Furthermore, Greek culture saw humanity as the pinnacle of a creation in which they perceived order. The Greeks’ search for truth and perfection in all things is evident in their constant exploration of symmetry, order, and proportion both in sculpture and in architecture.

Art and LIturgy - Greek classical church architecture - movie theater
A movie theater not far from where I grew up.

As Greek and Roman cultures came together in the 1st and 2nd centuries B.C., Roman architecture adopted these ideas and forms. The Renaissance revived and adapted the same ideas, over a millennium later. And today, when we build churches in the “neoclassical” style (or banks, or city halls, or anything we want to look stately), we again draw from the same humanist ideals.


Greek temple diagram from the National Park Service

Caryatid photo by unknown. Thermos assumed (based on copyright claims), CC BY-SA 2.5,

Temple of Medusa image by By Dr.K. (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Temple of Aphaia image by Витольд Муратов (Own work (Собственное фото)) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons