This Week in the Humanities

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Unlike the other arts, architecture serves a greater capacity for function; music and paintings are pleasing, but cannot offer physical advantages like shelter. Through time there have been many examples of architecture that renders just purpose, perhaps like an apartment complex, or a building that is merely decorative, shown more by modern styles. However, great architecture holds true to both function and aesthetic, satisfying both.


One of the principles of architecture is the choice between an open and closed form. The base of Western architecture comes from a form seen in Stonehenge and Ancient Greece

Google Images.

called post and lintel–a horizontal board (lintel) supported by two vertical beams (posts). The Greek temples, which used the post and lintel style, homed statues of gods and had an outdoor altar where a priest would make sacrifices and the temple would be beheld by a congregation. Temples were closed to the public, except for certain festivals, and created an atmosphere of mystery and fascination.
The stoa, or “porch”, form suited the Greeks–who looked to nature to reverence their gods, and lived in the warm climate of the Mediterranean.

Parthenon, Athens. Google Images.

The temples were generally built out of stone or marble, showcased fluted columns, and reflected decorative styles called the classical orders: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian.

“The Classic Orders” Khan Academy.


Roman architecture, like most Roman culture, looked to mimic the Greeks while adding in their own innovations. Unlike the Greeks, who were a public people and used their homes basically for essential living, the Romans were a family oriented people who enjoyed privacy and the interior of their homes. Therefore, they beautified not only the outside of their edifices, but also the inside, and built things like embedded half-columns into walls that had purpose but also interior aesthetic. To build the outside of a building, the Romans mastered concrete and were able to raise great edifices at a low cost. Due to the weakness of concrete against weather, their buildings were protected by a brick or stone facing.

Colosseum, Rome. Google Images.

Furthermore, the architectural gift innovated by the Romans was the arch. A smoother style of the post and lintel, the arch is centered on a keystone that prevents it from collapsing. A sophisticated addition to architecture, the arch was as useful as an outdoor element as an interior design. For example, a barrel vault is a row of arches whose rounded corners can be a more agreeable alternative to the sharpness of the post and lintel style. The Romans loved arches so much they built one for triumphant generals and their troops to walk under.

The Roman arch evolved into the dome, or a series of intersecting arches.

Google Images.

The Pantheon was a Roman temple built in the time of Christ and served as a place to worship pagan gods until it was later converted into a Christian church. The outside is in the style of Greek post and lintel, and the inside houses an extensive dome. Instead of having the arches intersect, a ring called an oculus allows the light from the heavens to stream in. The large dome and oculus allow the room a sense of glorious suspension with no anchors to the earth. The church actively holds service today.


If the function of Greek architecture were a side of a coin, then Christian architecture would be the other; Roman architecture would be an average of the two. Unlike the bustling Greeks, Christianity was an indoor worship seeking refuge from persecution. Although not always persecuted, this constant revolutionary religion observes sacred ceremonies not always welcome to gentiles or those not baptized or initiated. Church leaders sought no connection to the pagan traditions of the past and the architecture reflected an inward haven rather than a public show. Maybe one of the best examples, Hagia Sophia, meaning “holy wisdom”, grasped the Christian glory of Constantinople. Built in the 6th century A.D. by Justinian–the emperor of Constantinople–the church was founded upon the city which became the center of Euro civilization after the fall of Rome. The church is composed of a vast rectangle with a central square, mesmerizing arches, an impressive dome, and two half-domes on the east and west sides. However enchanting the decorative interior may be, it’s true testimony to Christian architecture is it’s inverse outdoor appearance, which is quite dull in comparison.

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S. W. L.

February 22, 2017