Architectural Ornament in Plant Forms

The trees may also have been adorned with the fruits and flowers of the harvest or with the physical remains of the sacrificial fowl and animals produced by the harvest. Battle trophies replicating the armor of slaughtered enemies might be hung from the trees as symbols of victory.

The familiar “egg and dart” motif might have been derived from  sacrificial remains.

Evidence of sacrificial rites such as the beaks and claws of birds shown above may have been hung from tree branches along with the many small bones of the sacrificed creatures strung together on ropes with votive tablets and other paraphernalia assembled to invoke the divinity. Our Christmas tree continues the originally pagan practice of honoring trees associated with sacred events.

Temples made of wood, none of which survive, were the likely predecessors of stone temples. Vitruvius, the Roman writer from whom we have gained much of our knowledge of Greek building practices, theorized that posts made from tree trunks became stone columns. The columns supported the horizontal superstructure called the entablature, which was originally a series of wood beams that, in turn, supported the roof. The absence of arches in Greek temples may indicate that the Greeks did not explore the structural possibilities of stone because they valued its durability more.

The Greek entablature was originally a series of wooden beams

The frieze of a Doric temple is composed of alternating triglyphs and metopes. The three vertical parts of the triglyphs are thought to have been wooden strips used to disguise or protect the rough-cut ends of the ceiling beams. Translated into stone and no longer structurally necessary, such motifs served both as reminders of former construction methods and as ways to create a pattern of light and shadow to delight the eye.

The rules that governed the architecture of temples were culled from famous examples in Greece. Roman builders grafted Greek forms on to such important buildings in Rome as the Colosseum as a way of increasing the prestige of their new culture. Centuries later, Thomas Jefferson used the Roman temple form to validate the fledgling republic of the United States. To promote confidence in the stability of the country’s civic and commercial buildings, Americans applied temple fronts to government buildings, banks, and other important commercial structures. Viewed as a kit-of-parts, the neo-classical buildings used borrowed structure and useful symbols to bridge the cultural gap between our new country and the ancient western world.

5 Responses

  1. I appreciate your comments and look forward to more o future posts,

  2. Tom Lease says:

    Incredibly well researched, well written, and very interesting article. Great job! I learned a lot of new words and new things today. Thank you!

  3. Sally,
    This latest piece is very insightful as to what has been lost by an architectural tradition that devalues ornamentation in favor of abstraction and and purity of form. Architectural critics who speak disdainfully of decoration as a distraction from the power of clean lines and a minimalist aesthetic forget, as you have so precisely demonstrated, the narrative power of ornamentation. If great buildings are those that make us pause and reflect, ornamentation such as you cite in your examples is proof that less is not always more. Architects’ continued aversion to the use of ornament on new buildings is an unfortunate legacy of modernism that seems to persist. These postings help us understand what we are missing when ornamentation is not a taboo aesthetic.

    Thanks again,
    Jay Claiborne

  4. Jay Turnbull says:

    I have enjoyed each part of your text on ornament. What interests me is the care and deliberation that underlie the inclusion of ornament for all but the most recent buildings – there is an interest in composition, in interplay of light and shadow, and in moving from drawing, to sculpture, to final realization. All this points to a system of belief that, sadly, now seems lost. Thank you for reminding us!

  5. Robin Chiang says:

    Hi Sally:

    Thank you for this splendid synopsis on the historic influence of plants in architectural ornament. Now that green architecture is popular wouldn’t it be charming if designers looked once again to plants for inspiration?


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