Introduction to architectural sculpture
The decoration of public buildings with sculpture was not uncommon in the ancient world, but in Greece, where it is almost confined to sacred and few other public buildings, it has a special significance, not least for its subject matter. Its placing is determined by the main orders of architecture.
On smaller buildings, such as the Archaic Treasuries at Olympia and Delphi, the sculpture can be quite lavish but still determined by the architectural orders. From the 4th century on the larger altars and individual votive monuments may be decorated with appropriate friezes.
Generally all such decoration is high on the building, and with time what seems peculiar to one order - such as the Ionic frieze - may also be incorporated in a Doric building (as in the Parthenon above). Occasionally the oriental practice of using a human figure as a column appears ('Caryatids').
Where the subject matter is narrative it is generally chosen to demonstrate the god of the temple, possibly in action or simply epiphany, or there is a myth scene which is related to the cult or city. Sometimes the relevance is very hard for us to determine.
The following account, roughly chronological, draws attention to the principal complexes and their subject matter. The style of the sculptures corresponds with that of free-standing works but is often the best evidence we have for any period, and avoids the problems of 'original' and 'copy' as well as being more easily datable.
Some 7th-century Cretan buildings are decorated with friezes in an oriental manner. Many 6th-century buildings fill their pediments with figures of fighting animals, and there is often a Gorgon at the centre. These are primeval statements of power but may be accompanied, in a subsidiary position, by small narrative groups. Such were the pediments on the Artemis temple at Corfu and on the buildings of Athens Acropolis, culminating in one with marble pediments, showing both the animal fights and the fight of Gods and Giants, which had been given an Athenian message.
At Assos, near Troy, the Doric temple has much in common with mainland rather than east Greek work, yet has friezes with myth subjects.
Of the later Archaic temples, that of Apollo at Eretria has subjects that seem to relate more to Athens (politically and geographically close) with Amazon fights and Theseus.
At Aigina the assimilation of the goddess Aphaia to Athena allows Trojan scenes where Athena dominates but some heroes have Aiginetan associations.
The Treasuries at Delphi, one Doric for Sikyon, one Ionic for Siphnos, have a rich variety of myth scenes of which only the unusual pediment for the Siphnian has a clear Delphic association (the rape of Apollo's tripod). The Siphnian has statues of women (Caryatids) for its front columns - see previous page.
The Greek colonies in the west have Doric buildings with rich mythical subjects in metope series, as that from Selinus in Sicily and the sanctuaries at the mouth of the River Sele near Paestum.
The early Classical temple of Zeus at Olympia has pedimental subjects which relate to Zeus, as guardian of oaths, and Apollo, as upholder of law (at the battle with the centaurs, above).
The Parthenon carries this use of friezes further by placing a continuous frieze round the whole central block of the building. The sculpture subjects seem to relate closely to the building's subsidiary role as celebration of Athens' success against the Persians: the birth of Athena and her winning the land of Attica in the pediments; metopes with Amazon fights, the sack of Troy, centauromachy, and the Gods fighting Giants -
- and the frieze with a heroic procession of cavalier citizens led to the presence of the Twelve Gods.
At the end of the 5th century the Doric temple of Apollo at Bassai has characteristic canonical metopes outside but places a frieze around the inner walls of the interior room - fights with Amazons and centaurs, attended by Apollo and Artemis.