Introduction to architectural sculpture

The decoration of public buildings with sculpture was not uncommon in the ancient world, but in Greece, where it is almost confined to sacred and few other public buildings, it has a special significance, not least for its subject matter. Its placing is determined by the main orders of architecture.

Pediment drawing
  • Pediment of the Megarian treasury at Olympia c. 510-500 BC
Doric Metope drawing
  • Drawing of Doric order

Thus, in the Doric order, there may be groups in the pediments at each end of a temple, panel reliefs in the metopes around the upperworks of the outside of the temple, and free-standing statues at the apex and corners of each pediment (acroteria).

Doric frieze drawing
  • Drawing of Ionic order

In the Ionic order pedimental sculpture is rare but there may be a continuous frieze around the upperworks of the outside of the temple.

On smaller buildings, such as the Archaic Treasuries at Olympia and Delphi, the sculpture can be quite lavish but still determined by the architectural orders. From the 4th century on the larger altars and individual votive monuments may be decorated with appropriate friezes.

Parthenon cutaway drawing
  • Cutaway diagram of east side of the Parthenon

Generally all such decoration is high on the building, and with time what seems peculiar to one order - such as the Ionic frieze - may also be incorporated in a Doric building (as in the Parthenon above). Occasionally the oriental practice of using a human figure as a column appears ('Caryatids').

Treasury reconstruction
  • Reconstruction of the Siphnian Treasury
Photo of Caryatid
  • Caryatid from the south porch of the Erechtheion

Where the subject matter is narrative it is generally chosen to demonstrate the god of the temple, possibly in action or simply epiphany, or there is a myth scene which is related to the cult or city. Sometimes the relevance is very hard for us to determine.

The following account, roughly chronological, draws attention to the principal complexes and their subject matter. The style of the sculptures corresponds with that of free-standing works but is often the best evidence we have for any period, and avoids the problems of 'original' and 'copy' as well as being more easily datable.

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