Aedicula: Definition, Art & Architecture

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The aedicula was a common part of ancient architecture. In this lesson, we'll explore this feature and see some of the ways it has been used throughout history and into modern times.

Aedicula

The Romans took their religion pretty seriously, and as a result, they had about half a dozen words that all roughly translate to ''temple''. One of the most common terms to describe the physical structure of the temple was aedes. Temples in the Roman world were big and impressive buildings, but you also had smaller shrines as well. Since shrines are basically miniature temples, the Romans used the diminutive form of aedes, aedicula.

In Roman architecture, an aedicula was a small temple-like shrine which housed a statue or image of a deity, and was generally built as part of a larger structure. Since Roman deities could inhabit their statues, these shrines were literally homes of the gods. As a result, these little temples were a big deal.

The Form of the Aedicula

The term ''aedicula'' has been used by different architects and different cultures for 2,000 years. As a result, there are some variations today in the way that the word is used. We'll look at a few different kinds of aediculae, but let's start with the standard form, the one most people think of when they use this term.

A typical Roman aedicula from Pompeii
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A shrine is basically a small temple, so logically the aedicula was built with several motifs of Roman temples. Specifically, aediculae were generally composed of four columns and some kind of gabled roof resembling an architrave and pediment. Basically, if we break a Roman temple down to its simplest form, it becomes two columns supporting a beam and a triangle. Those are the basic elements of the Roman temple, and that's what the traditional aedicula looked like.

Since aediculae were traditionally built inside other structures, their purpose was purely decorative. They were meant to highlight and accentuate something of importance, like a statue of a deity. As a result, they were usually open on three or four sides, rather than being walled.

Examples of Aediculae

Like we said, that was the traditional and most common form of aedicula, but it's not the only one. Even in the Roman world, aediculae could look different. The best way to understand this may be to look at some examples. Let's start with the traditional form, which can be seen in the buried towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Most homes of these cities displayed a lararium, which was a shrine to the household deities, or lares. The lararium was often shaped like a little temple, set inside the Roman home, and contained a statue or painting of the house lares. A lararium like this was a true aedicula. It's worth noting that while most aediculae were attached to a larger building, but there were some in Pompeii that were freestanding in public places.

A lararium in Pompeii
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A slightly different interpretation can be seen in the Roman temple called the Pantheon. The interior of this structured is pocked with niches, each of which originally contained a statue of a Roman deity. Niches set into a wall to house a religious object (particularly those carved to have columns and a pediment) are also sometimes called aediculae. This is especially true in Catholic Churches, which borrowed this practice to house both images and tombs of saints. In fact, even the Pantheon itself was converted to a Catholic Church.

Aediculae in the Pantheon
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The third main form of aedicula is a radiating chapel, something attached to the exterior of the building or protruding off the main aisles in the interior. We can see a good example of this at the Celsus Library of Ephesus, a Roman structure in what is now Turkey. The front of the building contains three doorways, and on either side of each entryway is a statue set in a niche. Highlighting that niche are two freestanding columns that support a basic temple-like entablature. This is a great example of adiculae on the exterior of a building, in this case forming mini temples to the deified personifications of wisdom, intelligence, knowledge, and virtue.

Celsus Library
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