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Greek Temple: Architecture, Construction & Parts

Instructor: Cassie Beyer

Cassie holds a master's degree in history and has spent five years teaching history and the humanities from ancient times to the Renaissance.

Greek temples were very standardized in appearance, with similar construction methods and styles across all examples. Stylistic elements included pediments, friezes, architraves, columns and cellae.

Background

Ancient civilizations generally had reciprocal relationships with their gods, with each side having responsibilities to the other. To ensure the gods continued to grace the people with good fortune, it was important for people to regularly honor them. To this end, temple-building was an important part of any city construction, with the most important temples being in prominent locations.

The ancient Greeks were no different. While they honored a wide array of gods, they honored all of them in very similar buildings. As such, all Greek temples share a number of traits concerning materials, construction techniques and layouts.

From Wood to Marble

Temples were originally made of wood. However, as cities became wealthier, temples became primarily built of stone, with the most important being constructed of expensive marble. This started around the 6th century BC and continued until the 3rd century, when the styles of other cultures replaced Greek-style temples.

Temple Layout: Cella and Columns

Greek temples have a very predictable layout. The cella sits in the center of the temple. This is a section enclosed by walls that holds a statue of the god to which the temple is dedicated. These statues can be as tall as 40 ft. and are constructed of a variety of materials including gold and ivory.

Floor plan of the Parthenon, the major temple in Athens, Greece from the 5th century BC.
Parthenon floor plan

The cella is surrounded by a colonnade, or long string of columns. The columns of any individual temple are always of the same order, or style. There are three orders of Greek columns, defined by proportion and style of capital, the top portion of the column.

  • A doric column is seven times taller than it is wide and has a flat, simple capital. It is the most commonly used order.
  • An Ionic column is eight times taller than it is wide and has a scroll-like capital.
  • A Corinthian column is nine times taller than it is wide and has a complex, plant-like capital. These are primarily found in Hellenistic temples, which come from a time when Greek styles had mixed with the styles of other cultures.

From left to right: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns
Doric, Ionic and Corinthian Columns Illustration

The Entablature: Pediments, Friezes, and Architraves

Illustration of Greek temple construction

An entablature is the architectural feature that sits above the columns. In Greek architecture, the entablature is composed of an architrave, a frieze, and pediments.

A Greek temple had two porticos, or porches, one in front and one in the back. The porticos were capped with triangular pediments, the richest of which were decorated with more than life-size sculpture in high relief. A relief sculpture is one that remains attached to a wall, and a high relief sculpture is a relief sculpture that extended considerably from the background wall.

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