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Greek Temple Architecture:
Godly Homes With Minimally Changing Style

By: Matt Pohl

What type of work would you do to impress your boss?  Average level work may leave you noticed, while poor work could even get you punished.  To be noticed, you always want to put your ‘best foot forward’ whenever it’s possible.  In ancient Greece, one could compare the gods to bosses one wants to impress.  As with deities in other cultures, the ‘houses’ built by the people of Greece for their gods were often seen as measure of dedication, appreciation, and conviction to the specific god the ‘house’ was built for. 

After the fall of the Mycenaean palace system, the Greek dark ages were a time of kings and isolation.  This isolation included an isolation of religious beliefs, with multiple views about gods existing at the same time in different places in Greece.  They also lacked any formal place of worship the gods, any buildings dedicated to gods. One could argue that the lack of focus the Greeks of this era had on religion stemmed from their poor living conditions.  When hardly able to even sustain the necessities for life, people couldn’t take the time or effort to please gods whose actions seemed to not even play a role in their daily lives.

As the small communities began to join together, the dark ages and its kings disappeared.  With this, the people became more unified with continuity in religious beliefs.  Individual gods were given more specific character traits: they became very real to the people of Greece with a history and a personality for each one.  “The Greek deities were usually portrayed as beautiful human beings, so much so that [modern people] sometimes have trouble telling whether an untitled Greek [statue] represents a god or a human.” (Jackson)  The Greek temple was designed to be the house of a god or goddess.  This meant that the original cult statue of the god was housed there, treated as if it were the god.  These original cult statues were, likely, uncarved planks of wood or even meteorites.  Thus, the god through the statue lived in the temple, and its design, location, and treatment was always based on that fact.

Starting around 800 BC, the Greeks began to build small temples for their gods.  These first temples were constructed of mainly wood, and had a small, intimate nature.  They were houses, and the design felt like a home more than a place to glorify and praise the god.  The basic design is similar to the Megaron of Mycenaen palaces.  The Megaron was a rectangular hall with pillars supporting a frontal porch.  The wooden temple design started with that design, a freestanding rectangular building consisting of only a single room with a small front porch supported by wooden columns.  Likely, these columns were entire tree trunks with the bark removed.  The walls were constructed out of dried-mud bricks and wood.  This mud-brick technology could have come from Egypt, where the idea to build temples to the gods may have also derived.  The roof of this early temple was thatched, as were most of the homes at the time as well.

Over the next century, a growing wealth allowed for further innovations in design.  First, the naos, or main room which held the statue, was lengthened in one direction to allow for a longer and more splendid approach to the cult statue.  Convention became that the proportion between length and width was two-to-one for all temples.  To make the building more grand, an additional layer was added to the perimeter in the way of a peristyle: columns which went all the way around the naos and supported its roof.  This perimeter went around the porch, or pronaos, as well. 

Though housed in their respective temples, the Gods could still be upset.  Before a dangerous situation or after morally poor behavior people would be fearful of the Gods.  Sacrifices or gifts were often left after one had survived stormy weather, battle, or lived through a morally questionable deed without receiving godly punishment.  Alternatively, Gifts to the god or goddess would bring favor upon the giver. Many times, wealthy Greeks would spend a great deal of money on festivals and expensive animals in the name of the god whose favor they sought.  Thus, along with the grander appearance of the temples, there was also considerations made for offerings to the deity.  These gifts and sacrifices were now given in a special room in the back of the naos called an opisthodomos. 

As the Polis became more and more important in Greek culture, the capital cities grew more important as well.  These larger population bases provided the additional wealth necessary for constructing larger and more permanent temples out of stone.  Most cities had a “high place,” called the Acropolis, where the city’s most important temples were built. The physical construction of these temples was quite ingenious and required great skill.  The blocks for the walls were perfectly carved to fit their location and secured to its neighbor by iron clamps.  The clamps were embedded in holes carved in the stone, then secured with molten lead, keeping the blocks together without any need for mortar.  Similarly, the columns of the stone temples started as short stone cylinders with a hole in the center.  These were then stacked, using cypress wood plugs to connect one cylinder to the next.  The changeover to stone also meant that clay tiles could be supported on the roof, providing better sun and rain protection than thatch.  Finally, stone temples had stone bases, called crepidoma, consisting of several layers of stone forming ‘steps’ to the top, with this top layer acting as the floor for the temple. 

The changes were mostly technological since the idea was to create a balanced, symmetrical, ordered building like nature itself is ordered which meant that the design used in the wooden temples was almost completely preserved.  The design of the pillars, with their ridges and capitols, were originally present in the wooden form:  the ridges were likely marks from removing the tree bark and the capitol was a wooden block to help the column support the weight of the roof.  Changes in form were attempts to perfect the original, traditional form.  Early stone temples were made of limestone, a more expensive material than wood, but not as expensive as the marble used later. 

Changes did occur in artistic style over the centuries, in spite of the conservative views of the architects.  During the Classical period of ancient Greece, three distinct styles arose.  The first style, and the one predominant on the Greek mainland, was Doric. In this, the capital was squared on top and rounded on its bottom; sometimes it appeared as a squared block which narrowed and rounded itself onto the body of the pillar without a distinct circle below the square.  Between the roof and the columns, the area known as the entablature, were the ends of the beams which supported the roof, the triglyphs, and artistic pieces in between the triglyphs known as metopes.  These small blocks featured mythological scenes and were painted in bright colors, colors which were found over much of the entablature.  Again, this practice was derived from the wooden temples when the metopes were wood carvings.  The earliest stone temples were of this simpler style.  Though not specifically associated with the style, early Doric pillars were thick and visibly bulging in the middle.  As time progressed, though, they thinned somewhat while still retaining a slight bulge.  The Parthenon in Athens is an example of, primarily, Doric style architecture.  In reference to this example, the slight bulge in the middle is supposed to counteract the optical illusion that occurs when viewing a perfectly straight column: a narrow middle. 

In Ionia, modern-day Turkey, a new style arose as an alternate to the Doric.  The Ionic style featured more slender columns which were traditionally much taller than their Doric counterparts.  Further, these columns had molded bases which appeared like an upsisde-down Doric capital.  The Ionic capitals were more elaborate, consisting of a block in which a ‘hair’ or ‘curl’ pattern was carved.  The entablature also became more artistically decorative and elaborate in the Ionic style.  Where Doric metopes were small and separated, Ionic friezes were continuous around the entire upper portion of the entablature.  The temple of Athena Nike is an example of this style.  Overall, the Ionic order was more intricate and artistic than the Doric.

The most complex and detailed style of temple architecture was the Corinthian order.  The base of the columns in this style were like those of the Ionic.  The Capitals were the main feature of this order as they were very intricate.  The capitals had the appearance of an opening flower or perhaps a group of leaves opening to the sky.  Because of the detail in such sculpting, few Corinthian temples were built and less information is available.  One temple which has several columns together still intact is the Temple of Zeus Olympios in Athens.

Though their religious importance diminished with time, becoming more of a status symbol for cities, Greek temples remained a symbol of dedication to the God for whom the home was built.  Continually destroyed and built over, the Greeks always put their ‘best foot forward’ when dealing with the gods because upsetting the BIG bosses can get you into BIG trouble.

Works Cited

  1. Professor Karen Carr, Dept. of History,Portland State University.  Greek Architecture: Archaic Period.     http://www.historyforkids.org/learn/greeks/architecture/archaic.htm

  2. Professor James James Jackson and William Stockton, Johnson County Community College.  The Parthenonhttp://jcccnet.johnco.cc.ks.us/~jjackson/part.html

  3. Hellenic Ministry of Culture.  Olympieionhttp://www.culture.gr/2/21/211/21103a/e211ca02.html

  4. Greek Art and Architecture. http://harpy.uccs.edu/greek/greek.html