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What is a Pediment in Architecture?

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

The pediment is one of the trademark features of Classical architecture. In this lesson, we'll explore the history and use of this element, and see how its style has changed over time.

The Pediment

What gives Classical architecture its distinctive look? Is it the arches, the white marble, or the statues of people who clearly spent lots of time at the gym? One of the most defining traits of Classical architecture is the overall harmony, the rational and mathematical relationship between various geometric elements. One thing that helps create this harmony is the pediment, the generally triangular piece in the front of Classical temples. When going for that Classical look, the pediment is never an impediment.

The triangular pediment gives this modern structure a Classical aesthetic
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Location and Parts

Imagine looking at the front of a Greek temple. Where's the pediment? Your basic temple front has a very consistent design, built around this basic formula: create a base, place columns on the base, place a horizontal superstructure called the entablature on top of the columns, and finally, top the entablature with a triangular pediment. As long as you can remember that the pediment is generally triangular and that it's on top of everything else, you can find the pediment in ancient Greek temples.

The pediment itself contains a few parts of its own. Two are especially important. The pediment is often surrounded with a protruding molding called the cornice, adding visual depth to the structure. The flat, vertical surface contained within the cornice is known as the tympanum. In most Greek temples, the tympanum was decorated with elaborate, carved reliefs of gods, heroes, or even monsters.

The Pediment Through History

The pediment first appeared as a feature in ancient Greek temples. This is what many people associate it with to this day. In Greek temples, the pediment not only helped to visually harmonize the geometric shapes of the building, it was actually an important structural element of the roof as well. Greek temples have low-pitched, gabled roofs. This means that the roof featured two sloping sides, running parallel to the direction of the building and meeting along a ridge running down the center of the structure. Basically, the entire roof looked like a long, low tent, with the pediment providing the support for this structure. Greek temples actually had two pediments, one in the front and one in the back.

In this model of a Greek temple, we can see how the pediment was designed for structural support
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The Romans took this basic formula but adapted it to their own construction techniques. With lighter materials like concrete and stronger architectural forms like arches, the Romans began reducing the structural importance of the pediment but kept it as an important decorative element of their temples. They also started including pediment-like ornamental structures over windows and main entrances into other buildings as well.

From there, the pediment was maintained in Western architecture within two basic stylistic trends. First were those who tried to emulate the Roman aesthetic, and used the pediment to connect their structures to Roman precedents. The Italian Renaissance was the first time that this became popular, but the various neoclassical styles of the 18th and 19th centuries also made heavy use of ornamental, Roman-style pediments.

The other trend in pediments was sustained by those who basically wanted to take the Roman formula and mess it up. In the Baroque era, which followed the Renaissance, architects took the strict, formal, linearity of the Roman-style pediment and added curves, spirals, scrolls, and other decorative elements to the cornice. The traditionally triangular pediment became re-envisioned in a variety of shapes during the fanciful and ornate Baroque.

A decorative pediment
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