Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.02.38

Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway, Prayers in Stone: Greek Architectural Sculpture (ca. 600-100 B.C.E.).   Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1999.  Pp. xvi + 255.  ISBN 0-520-21556-7.  $50.00.  

Reviewed by Janet Burnett Grossman, Department of Antiquities, The J. Paul Getty Museum (
Word count: 1919 words

Originally the topic of the 1996 Sather Lectures at the University of California Berkeley, this book on architectural sculpture is a much-expanded version, according to the author. It incorporates criticism and comments gained from both the lectures and a graduate seminar on Greek architectural sculpture that Ridgway conducted while at Berkeley. Ridgway organizes her study of Greek architectural sculpture around the familiar questions of standard investigative technique: Who, What, Where, When and How. Predictably, for those familiar with her scholarship, Ridgway rearranges the order of the questions in a manner uniquely hers. By posing these questions, Ridgway proposes that her text might imitate a Greek frieze, which by the repetition of standard motifs ensures understanding and recognition while producing a pleasing effect through slight variations.

The first chapter, "Why?", is a discussion of reasons for studying Greek architectural sculpture. Ridgway notes correctly that Greek architectural sculpture is unique among the architecture of ancient cultures, such as Egyptian, Mesopotamian or Persian, in being integral to the building. The sculpture on Greek buildings was not merely decorative, but part of the building. It is noted that at the beginning of architectural sculpture (the Archaic Period) it was primarily narrative and dynamic, in contrast to the freestanding statuary in the round of the period, which was formulaic and static. During that period the sculpture that adorned buildings was visually the most interesting. Dismissing the idea proffered by some that architectural sculpture was merely decorative, Ridgway demonstrates that the primary purpose of the sculptures on architectural monuments was religious. Temples, treasuries and altars carried the stories of divine mythology. These narratives of various divinities formed the connective tissue of Greek beliefs and influenced everyday life. This is demonstrated by the fact that poleis and states manipulated mythology to their own political aims. For example, Greek colonists seem to have preferred travel myths for the temples they built in their colonies and also for the treasuries they dedicated at international sanctuaries. Architecture was the means of visually communicating and transmitting epics and mythology in a society where just a small elite was literate. In addition to discussing the importance of architectural sculpture to the Greeks themselves, Ridgway also offers reasons for its importance to the modern researcher. First of all, architectural sculpture is sculpture that is original to its period, in contrast to much of the freestanding Greek sculpture, which is known only from Roman copies. There is more and better evidence for determining the chronology of architectural sculpture, i.e., the dates assigned architectural sculptures have more validity than those given to their freestanding counterparts. And finally, a study of architectural sculpture increases our knowledge of the contacts between widely separated areas through a study of the diffusion of distinctive forms and decorative elements.

Limitations to the study of architectural sculpture include its virtual omission in ancient literary sources, its being primarily produced by sculptural workshops rather than by famous sculptors, and its fragmentary state of preservation. A discussion of methodology completes Chapter 1. Noting the limitations of past approaches to the study of architectural sculpture, namely by chronology, typology, geography and subject matter, Ridgway explains that her approach will be to explore particular aspects of the sculptures within the framework of the investigative questions already mentioned.

Chapter 2, "What?", addresses definitions of standard forms such as pediments, metopes, friezes, and akroteria, as well as other carved elements on buildings that might have symbolic meanings. Ridgway provocatively uses the Alexander Sarcophagus as a virtual temple model to demonstrate her theory that all carved elements on Greek buildings carried specific meanings, symbolic as well as narrative. She analyzes all the carved forms as well as noting that the abundant traces of color on the sarcophagus help to remind us of the originally colorful condition of all Greek temples. She finds that every detail of the sarcophagus can be matched to an equivalent one on Greek temples of various dates and locations. The variety and wealth of ornamental vocabulary on architectural monuments are explored, with Ridgway concluding that almost any architectural embellishment has symbolic meaning and is significant and distinct from simple decoration. Most revealing is her finding that apart from a superficial visual impression of the standardization of Greek architectural forms, there was a wide range and variety of expression of the basic elements of the architectural vocabulary from building to building.

Chapter 3, "Where?", explores the issue of visibility and considers elements of a sculptural program that were intended to be read together. Here Ridgway tackles the matter of reception of the architectural program by the ancient viewer. She wonders how much of the ornament, whether narrative or symbolic, was readily perceivable by the viewer and how much of the sculpture was part of an integrated program. Since Ridgway argues that architectural sculpture was intended as a permanent public statement rendered in stone, analogous to a theatrical performance, clarity of visual perspective to the essential elements of the sculpture must have prevailed in the buildings. She concludes that the buildings did carry messages in their architectural sculpture but that they may not have been as logically constructed as we modern viewers seem to expect. The ancient viewer had the advantage of familiarity with both the architectural forms and the myths and so may have only needed episodic narration, with each myth recognizable from only a few elements. She encourages modern viewers to resist over-interpretation, which ultimately sabotages arguments that are based strictly on logic. She concludes that we can not hope to recapture the ancient mentality or ancient visual acuity and sensitivity, but should rather let the monuments speak for themselves.

Chapter 4, "How?", investigates the role of color in increasing visibility and understanding of the motifs of architectural sculpture. This chapter continues the themes introduced in the previous chapter. Ridgway admonishes modern viewers to strip away notions of ancient sculpture that have been conditioned and influenced by the neoclassical movement. Of course, she recognizes that the study of color on ancient sculpture is greatly hampered by the fugitive nature of ancient pigments under burial and weathering conditions of two thousand years.1 Ridgway surveys the evidence for pigment and concludes that during the Archaic period colors were used to provide contrast and legibility, with the palette limited to three basic tones, light, dark and red. The classical Period saw greater naturalism in the use of color, with the same basic palette but applied more sparingly and gilding added more often. A detailed examination is made of the Macedonian tomb at Lefkadia and rightly so, since it is highly colored and even reproduces some of the Parthenon south metopes in paint. The importance of historiography is emphasized, since it is necessary to read early travelers' reports and excavation records, where they survive, to find these observers' comments on polychromy at the time of discovery on sculptures that are now stripped bare. The predilection shown by the Greeks for the use of background colors for architectural sculpture was not derived from other cultures, and Ridgway posits the influence of the theater for this feature.

Chapter 5, "When?", considers the changes in meaning of specific topics through various phases, taking into account local traditions and politics. The premise of this chapter is that Greek architectural sculpture had different meanings at different times and in different places, but its main message at all times and in all places was religious. Any allegorical or historical allusion was secondary and perceived by the viewer. Ridgway explores several instances of changing iconography, most notably Caryatids and Atlantes/Telamones; centauromachies, amazonomachies and, finally, gigantomachies. The meaning of each of these motifs has been interpreted differently by various scholars. For example, male and female support figures (Caryatids and Atlantes/Telamones) have been interpreted as having punitive / historical meaning (Vitruvius); mythological meaning [G. Hersey, The Lost Meaning of Classical Architecture (1988)]; social meaning [A. Bammer, Architektur und Gesellschaft in der Antike (1985)]; Roman meaning [B. Wesenberg, "Die Kopien der Erechteionkoren und die Frauen von Karyai," JdI 99 (1984) 172-85; R.M. Schneider, Bunte Barbaren (1986), both on Vitruvius]; ritual/religious meaning [H. Plommer, "Vitruvius and the Origin of Caryatids," JHS 99 (1979), 97-102]; funerary meaning [A. Linfert, review of E. Schmidt, Geschichte der Karyatide (1982), BJb 184 (1984), 730-33]. Ridgway argues for an allegorical/mythological meaning in the Classical period with a shift to a Dionysiac connection in the late Classical period followed by luxury connotations by the end of the Hellenistic period (pp. 148-150). Again, Ridgway concludes the chapter with a caveat to the modern student to keep in mind that we have no way of recovering from the fragments that remain of the great monuments the original meaning that a specific topic had for the planners of a building. While we might logically reconstruct the original appearance of a particular building, we cannot reconstruct its original context.

Chapter 6, " Who?", determines the role of the architect as sculptor and of the sponsor in regard to what is represented, how it is represented and where on a building it is represented. This concluding chapter tackles the issue of multiple meanings head-on by examining the evidence to discover who was responsible for the selection of buildings and personnel, the choice of topics and the granting of final approval of the buildings. Were they members of a building commission, or perhaps the architect, the sculptor, or the patron? No firm conclusions are reached because of lack of information, but the investigation is in itself of interest and illuminating for furthering our understanding of ancient building methods. Much as today, the process of construction seems to have been a relatively democratic activity: a proposal was made and passed by a governing board; funds were raised; a commission supervised the work with a second commission often administering the money. In this chapter, Ridgway relies heavily on the excellent work on the methods of ancient building by Burford [e.g., A. Burford, Craftsmen in Greek and Roman Society (1972)] in her discussions of makers and patrons. She concludes that while internal and external factors could influence the choice of a sculptural program on secular buildings, sacred buildings in sanctuaries were probably under priestly control.

A useful summary of the main points discussed in the six chapters forms the conclusion of the book. Perhaps her final comment is the most compelling reason for anyone nowadays to care about Greek architectural sculpture and to continue to try to crack the code of its multiple meanings. That is the observation that we in the United States live in a world of classical quotations, from the neoclassical structures that survive from the nineteenth century to those post-Modernist structures of more recent times. It behooves us to increase our awareness of the buildings that lie behind these later reflections.

As one has come to expect with Ridgway's books, the notes are full of references to the latest scholarship, with meaty comments on a myriad of related and sometimes unrelated topics. A helpful glossary of architectural terms, six regional maps and some thirty-eight illustrations complete the book. The book will be extremely valuable to a beginning student of Greek architecture, precisely because Ridgway summarizes current controversies in the field; for example, she thoroughly examines the issues and various arguments on whether Pheidias was the mastermind behind the building of the Parthenon in Athens (pp. 193-194). It will also be of interest to the specialist in architecture for its lively discussion of the main issues in the study of the sculpted buildings that have survived from ancient Greece.


1.   New techniques for recovering barely perceptible painted scenes have been developed by a young Austrian archaeologist, R. Posamtier. He uses a combination of close visual examination and photography of the sculptures under special lighting, including ultraviolet. Results of some of his research were presented in a paper, "Painted Attic Gravestones of the Classical Period and Their Position within Classical Funerary Art," given at a colloquium in honor of C. Clairmont, Les Pierres de l'Offrande, 9-11 December 1998, Université Blaise-Pascal, Clermont-Ferrand. The proceedings of the colloquium will be published.

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