Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.09.56 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.09.56

Mark Wilson Jones, Origins of Classical Architecture: Temples, Orders, and Gifts to the Gods in Ancient Greece.   New Haven; London:  Yale University Press, 2014.  Pp. 304.  ISBN 9780300182767.  $65.00.  

Reviewed by András​ Patay-Horváth​, Institute for Ancient History, Univ. Eötvös Loránd; Archaeological Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest​ (

Mark Wilson Jones has published a series of articles on Greek architecture, but this book contains many new observations and arguments, and is superbly illustrated. This last point does not simply mean that the quality of the many black-and-white and color images is excellent, but more importantly that there are many drawings enabling easy visual comparison of capitals, ornaments and other design elements. The figures containing multiple plans or elevations on a uniform scale are especially useful and instructive.

The book describes the development of Greek architectural orders, but the discussion is not simply arranged according to the usual chronological or topographical scheme. Instead, a thematic approach is adopted throughout, which is refreshing, even if it has the effect that different parts or aspects of the same monument or even of the same order are often treated separately, although with frequent cross-references between the individual chapters.

Chapter 1 (’Purpose and Setting of the Greek Temple’) concerns a problem that is fundamentally important for Greek architecture, but is usually not treated in detail. After a brief review of other ideas (e.g. that temples were houses of the gods, or treasuries or places for ritual dining), Wilson Jones correctly concludes that temple buildings are collective dedications or votive offerings, gifts to the gods and embellishments of sanctuaries.

Chapter 2 (’Formative developments’) gathers the scattered pieces of evidence concerning the early temple buildings preceding and leading to the development of the Doric and Ionic styles. Jones demonstrates the paramount importance of mould-made terracotta roof-tiles in the genesis of the peripteral temple and concludes that "early Greek architecture did not develop in a progressive evolutionary fashion, as is so often supposed. Instead there was a surprisingly rapid jump from unassuming shrines to grandiose stone peripteral temples" (p. 60).

Chapter 3 ("Questions of Construction and the Doric genus") examines the widely held assumption that Doric temple design in stone ultimately derived from wooden predecessors and highlights the weaknesses of this ’petrification doctrine’.1 Wilson Jones concludes that "only the mutules, guttae and regulae convince as artistically edited joinery", but triglyphs convey only "a loose affinity with structure" (p. 85). He also concedes (pp. 85-86) that the hypothesis of a timber ancestry works quite well for the Ionic order, but again, the possibility of a constructional origin is definitely denied (without any decisive argument against it).

The following chapters are mainly concerned with the varieties of the Ionic order. In Ch. 4 ("Questions of Influence and the Aeolic Style") the Mycenaean, Egyptian and Oriental models are surveyed that are likely to have influenced the forms of the various Greek columns and their capitals. In Ch. 5 ("Questions of Appearance and the Ionic Style"), it is plausibly suggested that Ionic capital was actually developed from the so-called Aeolic capital (which is in fact a modern misnomer for a capital with rising volutes) and was first used in the Cyclades independently of temples, as votive dedications or as statue bases. Finally in Ch. 6 ("Questions of Meaning and the Corinthian Capital"), the ancient literary tradition concerning the invention of the Corinthian capital is examined and by comparing images of Athenian vase- paintings depicting real tombs (fig. 6.23), Wilson Jones concludes that "there may have been something behind the Vitruvian account (4.1.9-10) after all. It would seem that funerary allusions of Corinthian stood ... for the triumph over death, for regeneration." (p. 155) He extends this hypothesis to attribute a triumphal character to the Corinthian capital in Rome. While this is of course possible, I tend to agree with the simple statement that "the success of Corinthian was founded on its visual appeal." (p. 156)

Ch. 7 ("Gifts to the Gods") elaborates on the argument in Ch. 2 that temples were votive offerings to the gods. Wilson Jones argues that monumental temples and their architectural orders emerged as a combination, adaptation and multiplication of other common votive dedicationsusing as illustrations the formal similarities and possible connections between phialai and the echini of some columns outside the standard types.

Ch. 8 is entirely devoted to a similar analysis of "Triglyphs and Tripods". The idea that triglyphs and metopes are not to be understood as stone versions of similar or identical structures originally conceived in timber, is not entirely new and Wilson Jones has some good argument against the traditional view in Ch. 3. But the alternative suggested in Ch. 8 that tripods should be somehow assumed behind or connected with the form of triglyphs is not much more convincing. It is true that triglyphs in some cases resemble tripod legs, but the most important part of tripod cauldrons, i.e. the vessel itself can only be recognized in the tiny horizontal bar above the vertical stripes if we assumed that the handles were omitted entirely. This is admitted by Wilson Jones when he states that the triglyph "was not the architectural representation or equivalent of a tripod. If things were that simple the triglyph would no doubt have the ring handles that were so typical of tripods." (p.188). This statement seems, however, to contradict the preceeding discussion which centers on the formal similarities between triglyphs and tripods.

In fact, no vase shows a tripod without handles (at least not among the comparanda assembled in Wilson Jones’s fig. 8.7). The horizontal bar at the top of the triglyph, the arches below and the absence of corresponding motifs on the lower part do not necessarily depict something standing firmly on three legs, but could equally be seen as the stylization of a piece of drapery, i.e. a curtain hanging from the upper bar. In this case even the guttae could be integrated into the interpretation as a fringe pattern. But the triglyph does not have to depict or to resemble any real object, but can be explained as a decorative pattern, whose asymmetrical composition is due to its high placement concealing the lower part for the human observer standing in front of the temple. The difference between the upper and lower part can either derive from the desire to save unnecessary work (if bars and arches were originally modeled on both ends) or can be seen as an elaboration of an original pattern having neither arches nor bars on either end and it is hardly possible to decide which explanation comes closer to the truth. Moreover, tripod cauldrons were usually not dedicated in series, let alone on a uniform scale, but were erected individually (the row of tripods at the Ptoon adduced as a parallel for a series of triglyphs (187, fig. 8.18) is an exceptional case). Last but not least, tripod cauldrons were not just impressive votive offerings populating the sanctuaries, but were primarily objects of practical use during the geometric and orientalizing periods (clearly attested by Herodotus, 1.59). Later, they were dedicated as decorative objects (possibly with symbolic overtones), but apart from a Hellenistic piece (fig. 8.12), they were never depicted on a frieze. And even if we accept a connection between tripods and triglyphs, it remains to be asked why the tripods were only adapted for the Doric order but not for the Ionic.

Ch. 9 ("Crucible") is therefore right in stressing that "the Doric frieze is not a representation, nor a petrification of a line of tripods" and "the tripod-like characteristics of the Doric frieze represent a secondary and partial development." (p. 194) This is a hypothesis, which can be accepted as such, but if formulated in this way, it is actually not particularly relevant to the genesis of Greek architectural orders, the subject of the book. The resemblance between tripods and triglyphs is interpreted as the product of a gradual convergence following the establishment of the canonical Doric order and not as a sign revealing something about its prehistory. The question of origins is thus bypassed and no definitive answer is offered for the genesis of the frieze, just two possible scenarios (p. 202).The first one is a purely technical explanation (although Wilson Jones stresses that the frieze was unnecessary to the construction of a temple) and it does not seem to be very convincing, even if there are two exceptional temples (Sangri on Naxos and the Erechtheion at Athens), where the desire for "an unusually impressive and deep column-fronted porch" has actually led to the creation of a frieze. According to the other scenario, which is much more attractive (at least for the reviewer, but perhaps for the author as well) "the frieze would have arisen primarily for artistic and/or symbolic reasons. Rather as seen on some architectural models (Fig. 2.9), field-and-divider friezes may have been located near the tops of walls by the seventh century" (202). At this point the Mycenaean models and geometric tripods are supposed by Wilson Jones to have come into play. Instead, I would suggest that tripartite frieze dividers often appearing both in vase-painting, metalwork and architecture are likely to have derived from textiles, which were decorated either by continuous friezes or by roughly rectangular fields divided by vertical lines, since textiles were highly valued, widely known, and imitated (for instance, arguably in vase painting) and could thus be supposed as the ultimate source of the frieze design. My suggestion aligns with the central thesis of the book, i.e. that the decoration of various object classes may have mutually influenced each other, irrespective of their size, material and purpose. I think this idea is not just correct but also inspiring and Wilson Jones can be admired for collecting and sorting a huge amount of evidence. I also fully agree in seeing the Greek temple as a costly collective votive offering, but in my opinion, it is highly hazarduous (or even impossible) to connect some parts of the building with specific object types and it is even more risky to find out their original or intended meaning. Even if Wilson Jones indulges in such experiments, his treatment is always carefully balanced and his suggestions are formulated cautiously. This is perfectly exemplified by Ch. 10 (“Questions answered and unanswered”), which is a clear and useful summary and includes discussion of topics like "What gave Doric its panhellenic character?".

The book is carefully edited. One item (Bergquist 1988, quoted on p. 227 n. 13) is unfortunately missing from the bibliography and I add it here because I think it is an important contribution on the subject of cult continuity during the ”dark ages": B. Bergquist, "The archaeology of sacrifice. Minoan-Mycenaean versus Greek", in: R. Hägg – N. Marinatos – G. C. Nordquist (eds.), Early Greek Cult Practice, Stockholm, 21-34.

In sum, even if one is not necessarily convinced in all respects, the book is a major contribution to the study of Greek architecture and can be recommended for everyone interested in classics, history of art, archaeology or ancient history.

​[For a response to this review by Mark Wilson Jones, please see BMCR 2016.01.17.]


1.   In this context, I would have expected a detailed discussion of the Heraion at Olympia, because it is generally and most probably correctly assumed that its original columns were made of timber and were substituted by the extant stone ones. Unfortunately, the constructional/technological problems raised quite recently by M. Donderer (Das Heraion in Olympia und sein Säulenkranz, BABesch 80, 2005, 7-20) are just mentioned (as far as I can see, in note 46 on p. 228), but no argument is given either for or against them. ​

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