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Greek Friezes: History & Patterns

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever looked up at a building and noticed sculpture in a band across an area near the roof? Did you know the idea comes from Greek architecture? In this lesson, explore the history of Greek friezes.

What is a Frieze in Greek Architecture?

The ancient Greeks created many architectural concepts still used today, including the idea of a frieze. A frieze is a decorative band of architecture above a series of columns. It can be found on the inside or outside of buildings. When used on an external wall, it appears in the middle of a larger section on a building's exterior called the entablature. The entablature is a series of horizontal bands above the columns and below the roof. When a frieze is placed on an internal wall, it sits above the columns (if the space has them) and below the ceiling line.

Before we get to friezes, there are a few more things to understand. The Greeks loved order and reason. They developed categories and organized three orders of architecture, formal systems that applied to building design and proportion. The Greek architecture orders included Doric, the simplest and earliest order; Ionic, the middle ground which developed in the Greek islands; and Corinthian, the last and most elaborate order. Each architectural order had specific styles of columns, capitals or column-tops, and entablatures.

Patterns Found on Greek Friezes

Doric Friezes

All Greek entablatures had friezes, but there were differences between the orders. Most Doric friezes had a series of alternating spaces called metopes bordered by triglyphs, or rectangular blocks with three vertical lines.

Illustration showing the location of metopes and triglyphs in the Doric frieze
Detail of an Doric frieze

The metopes could be undecorated, or they might include relief sculptures with decorative forms or figures. A relief sculpture is one in which figures are raised from the surface but still attached. The Parthenon, one of Greece's most famous buildings, (built between 447 and 432 BC) had friezes with metopes and triglyphs.

Detail showing the metopes and triglyphs of the Parthenon. The metopes once held sculptural reliefs.
Metopes and triglyphs of the Parthenon

Ionic and Corinthian Friezes

The Parthenon was also a transitional structure (and not typical of Doric temples), because in addition to Doric friezes, it had a sculptural frieze depicting a procession. This was an unbroken relief sculpture known as an Ionic frieze.

In the Ionic and Corinthian orders, the frieze changed. Metopes and triglyphs were replaced by one single sculptural relief, usually made of carved marble. A good example of a building with an Ionic frieze is the Temple of Athena Nike on the Acropolis in Athens, built around 425 BC. Its frieze went around the whole building. One wall depicted the Olympian Gods, and the other three walls depicted various battle scenes, including the battle of Marathon. The picture below shows a fragment from the south frieze of the Temple of Athena Nike with one portion of a battle scene. Despite the fact that we can only see fragments, the sculptural quality and dynamism is clear.

Section of one of the sculptural friezes from the Temple of Athena Nike
Section of frieze from the Temple of Athena Nike

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