Temple of Artemis at Corfu: Pediments & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

There are many great Greek temples, but the Temple of Artemis at Corfu is unique. In this lesson we'll explore the history and art of this structure, and see what made it so important.

The Temple of Artemis

Why do we care so much about Greek architecture? The Egyptians built large buildings, and so did the Persians and other people. What makes the Greeks so special? Actually, what makes Greek architecture truly significant isn't the size. It's the material. The Greeks were the first people to consistently make large, freestanding structures entirely out of stone. That's hard to do, requiring precise mathematical calculations to understand the distribution of weight and stress on the stone blocks. It was a big achievement, and their first masterpiece of this style was the Temple of Artemis.

The Doric Temple

Located in Corfu, an island off the coast of Greece, the Temple of Artemis was built sometime between 600 and 580 BCE, back in the Archaic Period of Greek history. That is before the height of Athenian philosophy and math, and just as Greek civilization as we know it was really coming together. Before this, Greek temples were largely made with stone or clay walls with wooden beams and roofs. Then, the Greeks figured out how to distribute and support the weight of a full stone structure. We call this first stone style the Doric Order of Greek architecture.

This illustration shows what a Doric temple likely looked like in its original state
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Doric temples featured an enclosed room, called the cella, where the actual worship of a god occurred. Surrounding the cella were rows of columns that supported the roof. Doric columns tended to be tapered, fluted, and topped with a simple, convex capital. Above the capitals was a triangular superstructure called the pediment, which helped distribute the weight of the roof. Overall, it was a mathematically harmonious structure that embodied the calm logic of Greek values with its rational simplicity and focus on shape, ratio, and form over extreme decoration. This was the foundation of true Greek architecture.

The Temple of Artemis at Corfu is the oldest true Doric temple that we know of, representing a major shift in Greek architecture, but unfortunately, there's not much left of it. It's basically just a ruin now but seems to have originally had an exterior set of 8 x 17 columns, with an interior colonnade in the porch consisting of 2 rows of ten columns each. The temple was dedicated to Artemis, an extremely important Greek goddess associated with hunting, the moon, chastity, and nature.

Artemis was one of the most important goddesses in ancient Greece
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The Pediment

Of the original Temple of Artemis, only one thing really remains; the pediment. That's actually really lucky for us because the Greeks decorated their pediments with carved reliefs, generally depicting a narrative from their mythology. Since we have the pediment of the Temple of Artemis, we can learn something about early Greek art and mythology, as well as their architecture.

The pediment of the Temple of Artemis depicts a fearsome creature called a Gorgon, which had snakes for hair, wings, and tusks. It could turn people into stone just by looking at them. This particular Gorgon was named Medusa. The hideous depiction of Medusa is important; later artists would depict the Gorgons as beautiful females, so this monstrous version represents the Archaic Greek interpretation. Her pose is rigid but with an implied movement in the pinwheel posing of the arms and legs.

Medusa in the pediment of the Temple of Artemis at Corfu
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It lacks the grace and smoothness of Classical Greek sculpture yet to come and looks slightly Egyptian. In fact, there are several Egyptian influences in Archaic Greek art, leading historians to assume a high degree of contact between these cultures (likely through trade). There are two felines on either side of Medusa. They're not really part of the myth, but felines like this were an important part of Egyptian decorative motifs.

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