Theses Doctoral

Sacred Architecture in Ancient Greek Vase Painting: Between Reality and Representation

Arseven, Müge

The principles of ancient Greek architecture have persevered through millennia, their impact ebbing and flowing perhaps, but still considered a fundamental layer on which Western architectural traditions have been built. Keeping in mind the pragmatic, aesthetic, and ideological influence Greek architecture has continued to have, my dissertation turns to contemporaneous sources to gauge the Greeks’ reception of their own sacred architecture. Scholars of Greek religion tend to agree that the temple was not a necessary component of ritual – boundary stones delineating sacred space and an altar on which communication with the divine was sought through sacrifice and non-sanguinary offerings were enough for religious rites. Why, then, were considerable effort and funds put towards the construction of temples, often monumental and virtually ubiquitous across the Greek landscape? Paradoxically, why is Greek literature, an art form that valued ekphrastic accounts of artworks (Homer’s description of the shield of Achilles [Iliad 18.478-608] is an oft-cited example) mostly silent on sacred architecture save for few laconic and formulaic appellations and rather dry descriptions (Greek traveler Pausanias, for instance, focused on sanctuary histories and votive offerings but was rather disinterested in architecture)? There appears to be a disparity between etic and emic perceptions of Greek sacred architecture, but, in fact, ancient evidence proves otherwise and demonstrates that artists were mindful of the potency of sacred structures. My dissertation pieces together their visual testimonies, particularly in vase painting which is arguably the most prolific and far-reaching medium of Greek art.

Through an exhaustive perusal of museum collections, archives, and pottery-focused publications, the present study assembles a collection of nearly three-hundred vase paintings with depictions of sacred architecture and covering a time period of around three centuries from the Archaic period (seventh-century BCE) to the end of the Late Classical period (late fourth century BCE). The majority of the objects originate in Athens and its environs (Attika) and Magna Graecia. Based on this chronological and geographical scope, the study examines the images in four chapters: Attic black-figure vase paintings, Attic red-figure vase paintings with non-mythological subjects, Attic red-figure vase paintings with depictions of myth, and South Italian vase paintings. Within these chapters, the typology of architectural elements (e.g., freestanding columns, temple facades) and subject matter (e.g., myths, quotidian activities) constitute the primary criteria with which the images have been categorized.

This extensive collection of vase paintings provides manifold insights into not only the reception of sacred architecture but also architectural elements as effective pictorial motifs. A great number of the depictions can be connected to “real” prototypes and, in some cases, distinct religious practices. While previous studies have taken a similar approach only to fixate on the discrepancies between prototypes and what architectural depictions can tell us about ancient building practices, the present study argues that vase painters rarely, if at all, intended to reproduce existing structures. Thus, the evidence should be used to study the ways in which artists reflected and refracted how buildings shaped and were shaped by the needs of their users. Creating an autonomous visual language built on abbreviation, elision, and synthesis, artists, in fact, rendered structures fit for the pictorial world. Their aim was not exactitude but rather verisimilitude – temples, shrines, portals, sanctuaries that were guided by but never unequivocally subservient to reality.

The semiotic analysis of architecture, meanwhile, considers the aesthetics of vase painting and the objecthood of the vase. Beyond their face value (i.e., signifying sacred structures), elements like columns and simplified temples configure the surface of the vase into distinct zones, thus denoting spatio-temporal transitions, and hierarchize figures within the depicted events. Moreover, there are numerous instances where the pictorial frame is transformed into a built environment itself with the use of architecture – a practice that urges the viewer to contemplate the tension between the flatness of the ‘canvas’ and the habitable spaces defined by the juxtaposition of figures and structures.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Mylonopoulos, Ioannis
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 13, 2022