What is a Frieze in Architecture? - Definition & History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

Classical architecture has several distinct components. In this lesson, we'll look at the frieze, and see how this term has changed meaning in the millennia since its invention.

The Architectural Frieze

Police officers tend to have a hard time dealing with architects, because every time someone yells ''freeze'', all the architects start looking for Greek temples. It's a real problem. In the world of architecture, the frieze is a prominent part of the Classical formula for Greek and Roman temples. It's a wide, horizontal element above the columns that is often decorated, although it does not necessarily have to be. It's an important part of many temples, and ignoring it would be simply criminal.

Locating the Frieze

You basic Classical temple has a base, columns, and then a superstructure on top. This structure is composed of two elements, the entablature and the pediment. The pediment is the triangular section, but the entablature is the wide, horizontal section that rests directly on top of the columns. In the basic post-and-lintel system that makes up Greek temples, the entablature is the lintel.

This is where we find the frieze. The entablature itself is made up of three sections, with the frieze being the one in the middle. The lowest horizontal beam is the architrave. It's a structural element that helps support the weight of the roof. Sitting just on top of that is the frieze, a horizontal section with less structural, and more decorative, function. Above the frieze is the cornice, the protruding horizontal section that separates the entablature and the pediment.

The frieze is found in the entablature, above the architrave
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History and Development

The frieze is an important part of ancient Greek architectural orders, and has been around basically as long as Classical architecture itself. While there is some evidence of frieze-like elements in Egyptian temples, it was in the freestanding, stone structures of the Greeks where it first really appeared.

The frieze is one place where we actually see change over time, as the Greeks developed their various architectural orders. In the first era of Greek temples, called the Doric order, the frieze was decorated with a consistent, alternating pattern of triglyphs and metopes. A triglyph is a panel of three vertical lines, and a metope was a panel either left blank or carved with reliefs. Doric temples are identifiable by the alternating patterns of triglyphs and metopes in the frieze, which scholars theorize may have been a stylistic nod to their former wooden temples, and the wooden beams that would have been used in that spot to support the roof.

In the second Classical order of architecture, the Ionic, the frieze changed style. Rather than having a consistent pattern, Ionic friezes were carved with dramatic reliefs of battles, monsters, gods, heroes, or religious rituals. The final order, the Corinthian, eliminated the frieze as a visible element, blending into the rest of the horizontal support for the superstructure.

Reliefs from a Greek Ionic frieze
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To this day, when architects talk about friezes, they're nearly always referring to this element of a Greek Doric or Ionic temple. However, the frieze didn't actually disappear from usage. Ancient Romans used the frieze very frequently, modeling their own temples on the Greek orders. After the fall of Rome, Roman styles were reinvigorated a thousand years later in the Italian Renaissance.

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