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Origins of Classical Architecture: Temples, Orders and Gifts to the Gods in Ancient Greece

April 2017 (121.2)

Book Review

Origins of Classical Architecture: Temples, Orders and Gifts to the Gods in Ancient Greece

By Mark Wilson Jones. Pp. xvii + 304, figs. 235. Yale University Press, New Haven 2014. $65. ISBN 978-0-300-18276-7 (cloth).

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Wilson Jones attempts a holistic approach to the age-old question of the origin of the Greek temple and its orders, to examine it not only in the context of architectural history but as part of the broad religious, cultural, and artistic context in which the temple emerged. It is an ambitious undertaking, made even more challenging by the author’s choice to follow a thematic rather than chronological approach to the issues. A preface and introductory chapter lay out Wilson Jones’ basic goal and his approach to it. Despite a number of books dealing with the essence and emergence of Greek architecture published since 1980, no satisfying account of the Greek temple has appeared (4). In large part this is the result of scholarship that privileges one contributing factor over another; in particular, issues of construction technique tend to ignore questions of outside influence or formal appearance, and one or the other of these elements may overshadow the role of meaning in architecture (7). By contrast, Wilson Jones gives equal weight to all four, tying each to one of the main Greek column types: construction/Doric (ch. 3); influence/Aeolic (ch. 4); appearance/Ionic (ch. 5); and meaning/Corinthian (ch. 6). But that is not all; issues of physical, social, and religious setting play a part in the creation of Greek architecture, as does the nature of offerings made in and around the temple. Thus, the four core chapters are bookended by essays on these topics: chapter 1 addresses the purpose and setting of the temple, chapter 2 its early development; chapters 7, 8, and 9 deal with religious and artistic gifts that influenced architectural design. Finally, in chapter 10, the author attempts to summarize those questions he believes he has answered and those that still remain. The book is most suited to specialists, although architectural historians of later periods may be drawn to some of its more theoretical aspects.

There is space in this review for only brief highlights of the chapters. In chapter 1, Wilson Jones stresses that the temple is at heart a religious offering. It distinguishes itself from myriad other such gifts in the sanctuary by its scale and sumptuosity, and this aspect vaults it into other societal roles, particularly as a polis-scale show of political power. Chapter 2 traces the emergence of monumental architecture from the 11th through the seventh centuries B.C.E., a period in which the temple did not follow a smooth evolutionary path but rather underwent paradigm shifts, the most notable of which are the invention of tiled roofs, the introduction of the peristyle, and, at the end of the period, the emergence of Doric and Ionic “genera.” Wilson Jones prefers this Vitruvian term to “order,” as the latter nomenclature, introduced in the Renaissance, suggests a prescribed system that was never the norm in antiquity (2).

In chapter 3, “Questions of Construction and the Doric Genus,” the author reviews the Vitruvian “petrification” theory of the origin of the Doric genus. While acknowledging a loose connection with wooden prototypes, he argues there are elements of Doric that cannot be so explained, particularly the trigylph. He also argues that the emergence of this genus is more revolutionary than evolutionary. More broadly—and ultimately more important for his overall thesis—he challenges the idea that structure is the principal driver of form in Greek architecture. Chapter 4, “Questions of Influence and the Aeolic Capital,” explores the role of diffusionism in the creation of architectural form through the example of the short-lived Aeolic capital. Possible influences of Egyptian, Minoan, Mycenaean, and Near Eastern origin are examined, as well as the failure of the Aeolic. Wilson Jones lays out a number of “faults,” one of which, it is interesting to note, is structural—the Aeolic capital’s inability to “turn the corner of a peripteros” (110). Chapter 5, “Questions of Appearance and the Ionic Genus,” explores the importance of ornament primarily through an examination of the Ionic capital; out of the attraction of volute designs from a variety of sources develops the archaic Aeolic and the Cycladic Ionic, and ultimately the Ionian Ionic (132). Despite wide experimentation, this became the ultimate form because, again, it offered the best solution at the corner of the peripteral temple. In chapter 6, “Questions of Meaning and the Corinthian Capital,” the mythological origin and ultimate design of this form offers a rich case study of symbolic meaning as motivation for design choices.

Chapters 7 and 8 present evidence for the connection between architectural forms and those from small-scale art, such as that between the Doric echinus and the phiale, the field-and-divider principle at work in the triglyph and metope frieze, and, what is clearly a favorite of the author’s, the idea that the triglyph design derives from the tripod, with its attendant symbolic associations. He devotes the entirety of chapter 8 to this topic, on which he has already published a lengthy article (M. Wilson Jones, “Tripods, Triglyphs, and the Origin of the Doric Frieze,” AJA 106 [2002] 353–90).

Chapter 9, “The Crucible,” provides theoretical contextualization for all that has preceded in the book. The author speaks of experiment and “contagion between material culture and architecture” (192), of ideas of convergence (192), of inclusion and exclusion (196), and of unity in multiplicity (198). Among the concluding statements in chapter 10 are the following: “the Greek temple made its appearance relatively suddenly” (208); “the form of the Greek temple and its orders is not the result of a linear or logical development” (208); “the peristasis was primarily a Greek invention” (208); “constructional principles shaped the orders, but rather less than has often been assumed” (209); “varied influences from earlier traditions seeded concepts fundamental to the scheme of temples as well as forms subsumed into the orders” (209); the “quest for visually effective form moulded the orders and their handling” (210); “components of the genera are heterogeneous in origin, character, and design modality” (210).

Many of the separate, individual pieces of evidence that Wilson Jones presents in his book will be known to students of Greek architecture. That said, a rich and extraordinary trove of research lies in its text, tables, images, and references. There is no citation that this reviewer misses seeing (the important photogrammetric study and analysis by Sapirstein appeared too recently for inclusion (“The Columns of the Heraion at Olympia: Dörpfeld and Early Doric Architecture,” AJA 120 [2016] 565–601). Further, a number of secondary themes crisscross the pages of the book that limitations of length have precluded from discussion in this review, including theory of ornament, the historiography of Greek architecture, and its connections to later periods of architectural history. One cannot help but appreciate the enthusiasm the author brings to his subject and which goes some way to excusing his reluctance to let go the third, fourth, or fifth “gem” of evidential interest when one or two examples would suffice.

Suffusing everything is Wilson Jones’ conviction that the origins of Greek architecture are multivalent and eclectic; there is no one overriding principle at work in the creation of Greek architectural form. This theme resonates throughout the book, in repeated statements in the text and in its basic chapter structure. Unfortunately, this structure results in organizational problems. Topics are presented piecemeal in different chapters, as, for example, elements of the Doric order (47, 54–6, 63–88, 92–6, 117–19, 161, 167–70, 177–90, 194, 196, 200). Other subjects are shoehorned into chapters where they do not naturally fit; for example, the beginning of chapter 5, on the Ionic order, deals with Doric refinements and ornament. Conscientious editing tries to overcome this drawback through numerous cross-references to text and images, but these distract the reader as much as they help. Overarching theoretical and thematic relief does not arrive until chapters 9 and 10. One wonders what would have been the outcome if the themes of these chapters had formed the structural weave of the book. In his preface (xiv), Wilson Jones compares his approach to that of the “who done it” detective novel where the answer is not revealed until the end. He might also have compared himself to the juggler tossing an astonishing number of balls in the air; that he drops a few does not detract from his effort.

Rhys F. Townsend
Art History Program
Clark University

Book Review of Origins of Classical Architecture: Temples, Orders and Gifts to the Gods in Ancient Greece, by Mark Wilson Jones

Reviewed by Rhys F. Townsend

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 2 (April 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1212.Townsend

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