Archaic Greek Art until the Greco-Persian Wars II: Doric and Ionic orders

The structure of the ancient Greek temple followed different types or styles called orders because they were repeated in every detail with some canonical order. One is the Doric order preferred by mainland Greeks, another was the Ionic order preferred by the Greeks of Asia. Later a third style appeared, the Corinthian order which only differed from the Ionic by the shape of the column’s capitals. All major national buildings of Greece were built in the first two orders: the temples of Olympia, Delphi, Athens, Corinth, Sicily, and Southern Italy were all Doric while the great Greek sanctuaries of Asia like the temples of Ephesus, Sardis, Samos, Miletus, and Halicarnassus were all Ionian.

Basic structure of the Doric Order highlighted in the Temple of Hera II or Temple of Poseidon at Paestum.

Lets describe first the Doric order. In this order the building stands on a base called stylobate* which is reached through a stepped platform (crepidoma*) that sometimes was supplemented with a ramp due to the number and size of the steps, the remaining steps of the crepidoma are called stereobate*. Over the stylobate were the columns of the portico, these columns didn’t have bases or plinths* and their ribbed shafts* had 16 or 20 vertical grooves cut in sharp edge. These grooves on the shaft ended in the top of the column in a series of slots forming the so-called necking over which the capital was supported.  The form of the Doric capital was very characteristic: a simple convex molding called echinus* that looked like a cushion. The form of the echinus changed with time: flattened at first, then it raised gracefully. The column was also thicker and lower in the oldest temples and eventually became more slender and with more grooves.

The columns supported a horizontal band called entablature* formed by a first horizontal lintel without decoration that ran above the columns and formed a smooth area called architrave*.  On top of the architrave ran a strip called frieze divided into squares decorated at intervals with vertical grooves called triglyphs*. The other squares were painted or adorned with sculptures and were called metopes*. This alternating structure of triglyphs and metopes on the frieze is one of the characteristics of the Doric order. Above the frieze was the cornice which protected the inferior parts of the building from the rain.

Many acroterion of Greek temples represented sphinxes. The Sphinx of Naxos (ca. 550 BC.) stood on a 10 m height column in the sanctuary of Delphi (Delphi Museum).

The temple was covered by wooden beams covered with tiles, these tiles were initially made of clay but later were carved in marble. In the two main temple facades the double-sloped roof framed a triangular zone called pediment* which was usually decorated with sculptures. The slope of the pediments changed with time and its three angles were decorated with several pieces of carved marble or ceramic called acroterion*. Initially acroterion were simple geometric shapes but later represented female figurines, gryphons, or small winged victories.

Initially the Doric temples must have been built with brick (walls) and wood (the top parts). The light came inside the temples exclusively through the door, so the Greek temple had a semi-dark cella (or inner chamber of the temple) full of votive offerings, and in the background stood the statue of the divinity. Devotees rarely had access to the sanctuaries.  Ceremonies, sacrifices, and rites of public worship were held outside besides the altar located in front of the door.

The temple was always polychromed, both outside and inside. Initially, the brick walls were covered with a thin layer of stucco, but from the V century BC they were built generally in marble. The necking of the capitals was painted in red. The architrave was almost always free of color, triglyphs were always blue with its grooves painted in black, the background of the metopes was also painted with a combination of palmettes and frets as also were certain parts of the cornice. The acroterion were also brightly colored and the background of the pediment was painted black or red to highlight its sculptural decoration. Inside the cella, polychromed decoration was located mainly in the frieze and ceiling to hide the wooden beams.

Basic structure of the Ionic Order highlighted in the Temple of Athena Nike at the Acropolis of Athens.

The second architectural style, the favorite of Asian Greeks is called Ionic order. In this order, the temple also stood on a pedestal or stylobate. The column no longer rested directly on the ground but had a base or plinth formed by a series of circular moldings. The bases of the Ionic column were varied. Sometimes, as in the temple of Ephesus, below the base there was a square pedestal on which the whole column rested. The shaft was cylindrical and its grooves met at the top in bezel not in sharply cuts as in the Doric order. These grooves ended at the top forming a spherical convex area.  Then was the capital. This had a strip decorated with egg-shaped forms and on either side it had two spirally twisted moldings called volutes*. Volutes were the most characteristic part of the Ionic capital  as the echinus was for the Doric order. This capital with volutes is of Eastern origin: it is seen in abundance in many Assyrian reliefs and can be found in Cyprus and Phoenicia. Initially these Ionic capitals had simple volutes with a few laps in their spiral, as they appeared in eastern style capitals.

Structure of a Ionic capital, marble column from the temple of Artemis at Sardis (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).

The Ionic entablature is in broad sense similar to the one of the Doric style though they differ in several respects. First, the architrave is not smooth but divided into three bands by simple re-entrant moldings. The frieze didn’t have a geometric grid divided into metopes and triglyphs, but was a zone in which the sculptural decoration was freely developed. The cornice was not as protruded as in the Doric order and was characterized by some egg-moldings and dentils. The cornice was built in stone and ended in a molding with sculpted palmettes.

Comparison between Doric and Ionic orders of Greek architecture.

A clear separation of these Doric and Ionic orders cannot be made following detailed geographic zones.  Although initially they were confined to its region of origin, after the Greco-Persian Wars Ionic order was adopted by mainland Greeks and Doric temples were found also in Asia. Sometimes different orders were combined into a single building. In the Propylaea, the monumental gateway of the Acropolis of Athens, the columns of the exterior walls are Doric while the interior columns are Ionic. The Parthenon, Doric in style, has a Ionic frieze over the colonnade.  The two orders were also combined in the temple of Apollo at Figalia.


*Acroterion: An architectural ornament placed on a flat base called the acroter and mounted at the apex of the pediment of a building in the classical style. It may also be placed at the outer angles of the pediment.




*Architrave: The lintel or beam that rests on the capitals of the columns. It is an architectural element in Classical architecture.





*Crepidoma: In Classical Greek architecture refers to the platform on which the whole temple or building is erected. The crepidoma usually has three levels thus forming a stepped platform. The levels typically decrease in size incrementally, forming a series of steps along all or some sides of the building.

*Echinus: One of the parts of a column‘s capital. The echinus is a circular block that bulges outward at its uppermost portion in order to better support the abacus, it rests on the column’s necking.

*Metope: In classical architecture, a rectangular architectural element that fills the space between two triglyphs in a Doric frieze. Metopes often had painted or sculptural decoration.

*Stereobate: Refers to the remaining steps of the platform or crepidoma under the stylobate upon which the whole structure of a Classical temple rested.

*Stylobate: In classical Greek architecture, a stylobate is the top step of the crepidoma, the platform upon which colonnades of temple columns are placed. The floor of the temple.

*Triglyphs: The vertically channeled tablets of the Doric frieze intercalating with the metopes.





*Entablature: The complete structure of moldings and bands which lie horizontally above columns, resting on their capitals in classical architecture.








*Pediment: An architectural element typical of classical architecture, consisting of a gable (or the generally triangular portion of a wall between the edges of intersecting roof pitches), placed above the horizontal structure of the entablature, and typically supported by columns.


*Plinth: The base (or platform) upon which a column,  pedestal, statue, monument or structure rests. The plinth usually rests directly on the ground or stylobate.




*Shaft: The middle part of a column, between the base and the capital. In classical architecture, the column shaft is sometimes articulated with vertical hollow grooves known as fluting.









*Volute: A spiral, scroll-like ornament that forms the basis of the Ionic order, found in the capital of the Ionic column. An Ionic capital has typically four volutes.




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