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The temple was the most significant type of building in Ancient Greece. The Greeks built their temples in conspicuous places, often on the highest points of a city, as symbols of common religious and civic beliefs. As Aristotle said, the site for a temple "should be a spot seen far and wide, which gives due elevation to virtue and towers over the neighborhood." Greek temples were not built to accommodate worshippers inside. Sacrifices and other rituals took place on altars in front of the temple. Inside Greek temples were cult statues of important deities. For example, the Athena Parthenos is a sculpture of the goddess Athena that was housed in the Parthenon in Athens, Greece.
Temple sculptural decorations depict battle scenes or representations of stories from Greek mythology. Rather than simply serving a narrative purpose, these scenes reflect actual festivals and rites that took place near the temple. The Greeks connected to their gods by way of festivals and sacrificial rites. They sacrificed to their gods on altars placed in front of their temples, and they processed around their temples, where they believed their deities dwelled.
The earliest Greek temples were made of mud, brick, and wood. Later temples were made of limestone and marble. Marble was easy to find. In Hymettus, outside of Athens, a bluish-white stone could be quarried. Beautiful white stone, called Pentelic marble, came from the nearby city of Pentelicus. But what remains of these temples should not deceive us. Although they appear sparkling white to us today, these temples were originally painted with bright and somewhat garish colors.
As we shall see, the temples and other monuments that adorned the acropolis (or "high point") of a Greek city-state reinforced the individuality and importance of each city-state, and also helped secure the protection of a deity particular to it.
Greek Temple Architecture: The Archaic Period
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Temple of Hera I (Basilica), Paestum, Italy, ca. 550 BCE.
Greece was in contact with Egypt as early as the seventh century BCE, and there can be little doubt that the monumental buildings of Egypt influenced the Greeks in their construction of monumental temples.
Large-scale temples, such as the Temple of Hera I in Paestum, Italy, include a peristyle, or colonnade. This colonnade, or series of columns, surrounds an inner cella, or naos (the central room that housed the cult statute). Unlike Egyptian temples, the Temple of Hera I included a screen around the cella (or inner chamber) to shield it from the outside world. One approached the cella by way of a pronaos (or vestibule). The peristyle, or columned porch, was created out of marble and surrounded the inner cella. This represented a change from earlier construction, when temples featured wooden peristyles.
Plan of the Temple of Hera I. Paestum, Italy, ca. 550 BCE.
Greek architectural orders.
The Temple of Hera I is an example of a Doric temple. The Doric order is the first of the three Greek architectural orders (Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian), and derives its name from the Dorian people. The Doric temple was constructed using the post and lintel system, with columns that taper upward and each have a cushioned capital at the top. Above the columns on the front of the temple is a frieze consisting of an alternating rhythm of triglyphs (three-grooved panels) and metopes (slabs that are often decorated); this, plus a triangular pediment, form the entablature.
In general, the Doric style is usually characterized as blocky and heavy. The Doric style also features pronounced entasis, or swelling of the columns. It's as if the architect were unsure whether the weight of the lintel would be sustained by the columns unless they were large and stumpy.
West pediment from the Temple of Artemis, Corfu, Greece, ca. 600-580 BCE. Limestone, greatest height 9' 4".