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Columns of Greek Temples

Ancient Greek Mythology, Religion, Art

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Columns of Greek Temples: Doric, Ionic, Corinthian


Art, Architecture, Politics

As difficult as it may be to recognize the role of art in politics, it is even harder to recognize how architecture and the structuring of public spaces can also send political messages or shape political consciousness. One area where it's easiest to see this process at work is the use of Greek columns. We know Greek columns from a religious context — their use in ancient Greek temples — but during the Enlightenment they were adopted because of their association with ancient philosophical, political, and humanistic values.


Doric Columns & American Secularism

Over the centuries three different styles (also called Orders) of column were used by the Greeks: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. The earliest and simplest column style was the Doric. Found primarily on mainland Greece and Magna Graecia, it is characterized by a lack of base, a plain architrave, and a frieze divided into triglyphs and metropes.

Doric columns were widely adopted in 19th century America during the phase known as Classicism. Doric columns appeared on government buildings to suggest justice, incorruptibility, and the secular, republican virtues which American government was drawing from ancient Roman and Greek philosophers. This classical architecture style was not chosen simply because it looked good, but because of the secular, political message it could convey.

Government buildings were never designed to look like Christian churches nor did they ever adopt any standard forms used in Christian sacred architecture. Instead, public buildings in America were designed to look more like the civic, public buildings of ancient Greece and Rome. If America was designed to be a Christian Nation, why weren't public institutions patterned after Christian institutions, either in terms of internal structure or external architecture?

Even churches used Doric columns, though, in order to suggest a return to simpler and more original Christian message. For the government, Greek classical architecture represented secular, republican values; for churches, Greek classical architecture represented an original, unfettered form of Christianity.


Ionic & Corinthian Columns

Slightly more elaborate is the Ionic style of column, generally associated with Greek temples in the Ionian Greek territories. This Order is characterized by a decorated base, elaborate scrolls (volutes) at the top, and a continuous frieze. Public institutions chose to reproduce Ionic columns if they wanted to convey an image of being very learned and civilized - it's thus more common to find them on museums and libraries whereas courthouses and other government buildings use the Doric style.

Last and most elaborate is the Corinthian style which originated in Corinth in the late 5th century BCE and became popular in many places throughout Greek territory. Corinthian columns are very similar to Ionic columns except for the capitals, which have a flourish of canthus leaves instead of volutes. This order would become most popular under the Roman Empire and continues to be used today in contexts where there is a desire for a more ostentatious design.

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