Gifts to the Gods

  • Wilson Jones, Mark (PI)

Project: Research council

Project Details


The temple is the ultimate statement of built perfection, of harmony, of symmetry, of excellence beyond ordinary experience. The orders - modes of construction based on distinct types of columns (the supports) and entablatures (the supported) - though created for temples, went on to put their stamp on the entire classical tradition. These orders / Doric, Ionic and Corinthian - distil not only vocabularies of forms but also the grammar by which the forms fit together. Attempting to explain how and why they came into existence has been one of the oldest and most fascinating of all architectural obsessions.\n\nA deep-seated misconception that once and upon a time temples and orders developed in accordance with a rational evolutionary model of progress conspired however to lead much previous thought up the wrong alleys. The Greek temple did not derive from logical processes out of the germ of some little primitive hut; instead its monumental stone manifestation appeared almost 'out of the blue', with a relatively sudden jump in number, size and cost. It had its conceptual origin in religious and social ideas that are rooted in the formation and consolidation of the Greek polis or city-state between the 8th and 6th centuries BC.\n\nThis project sheds light on the orders and the temples they adorn by situating them in their original religious and physical settings / that of the sanctuaries set aside for the divine realm which from small beginnings became the showcases for the best in Greek art. It can be demonstrated that while temples answered to other concepts and activities, one of their most significant functions was for keeping and displaying the most valuable offerings deposited in sanctuaries. Temples were indivisible from the economics of giving in a deeper sense too; they were themselves dedications. This goes a long way to answering a question put by a leading scholar of Greek religion Walter Burkert: Why did the Greeks put so much investment into 'elaborating the superfluous, that which at first and second glance and on their own reflection they did not really need?' They did this precisely because in their eyes temples were the most visible, the most costly, and the most durable of all collective religious offerings. Thus they made special appeal to divine favour.\n \nThe elevational treatment of temples based on the dominant Doric and Ionic orders / or genera in the ancients' own usage / was also bound up with the dedicatory theme. Rather than being the legacy of some primeval timber construction, components of the orders appear to have been derived from prestigious classes of offerings. It seems that Doric, Aeolic and Ionic columns were first used as votive supports and only later as architectural supports. \n\nWhile the dedicatory theme explains much that otherwise would remain puzzling, there were many other factors that pertained. The central characteristics of classical architecture took hold in fact because they succeeded in embracing and reconciling disparate aspects of design. Construction, ornament, meaning and the influence from preceding cultures all had roles to play. Luxury objects and miscellaneous exotica from Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean exerted significant influences on Greek decorative traditions. At the same time there is a reprise of Minoan-Mycenaean motifs in certain details of the orders, seemingly because the Greeks associated ruins from the Bronze Age with the legendary heroes of the Homeric epic cycles, the Iliad and the Odyssey.\n\nThus here are simple messages and complex ones too. This is an intriguing exploration that seeks to shake up thinking about a fundamental moment in western culture. \n
Effective start/end date1/01/0930/06/09


  • AHRC


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