Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Doric Order

The Doric order is the earliest of the classical orders developed by Archaic Greek civilization and was by far the most popular of the three. The eponymous Dorians were the dominant tribe of the four main peoples forming ancient Greece and the Dorian dialect was spoken in a great southward arc stretching across the Aegean from Corfu to the lower Peloponnesian Peninsula and on to the islands of Crete and Rhodes. (Above, the Hephaisteion or Theseion, a remarkably preserved Doric temple located on the north-west side of the Agora of Athens.)

Already well-established in the 7th century BC, the Doric order reached its apotheosis with the stunning achievement of the Parthenon in 438 BC but eventually fell from favor by the end of the 2nd century BC. It would spawn both the Roman Doric, an embellished version with lighter proportions and the addition of the Ionic column base, and much later the highly simplified Tuscan order, developed in 16th century Italy by Serlio and Palladio and employed principally for rural architecture, as embodied by Palladio's villas.

In Di Architectura, Vitruvius, a Roman architect who practiced during the reign of Augustus Caesar, remarked that the Doric was masculine in character and wrote that its fundamental proportion, a column shaft six times its diameter, deliberately mirrored "the proportions, strength and beauty of a man's body." (The length of actual shafts varied between 4½ and 7 column diameters, with the shaft almost uniformly bearing 20 flutes.) He also noted that the Doric was suitable for temples dedicated to such masculine gods as Hercules and Mars, while the Ionic and Corinthian were more feminine.

Though in truth the Romans used the Corinthian order for just about everything, Vitruvius's comments reflect the Doric order's thicker, squatter proportions, its traditional lack of naturalistic or floral ornament and its underlying static, rectilinear æsthetic logic. There is no point in cataloguing Doric elements here for the umpteenth time, rather we will examine the Doric column and its all-important capital and attempt to discern greater meaning than the ancient tidbit Vitruvius has tossed us—and also something beyond the obvious modern observation that many of its rectilinear elements (triglyphs, abacus, mutules, and so on) almost certainly are inspired from earlier timber-frame construction techniques, translated into stone decoration.

The first things to remark about the Doric capital (above and below, examples from the Parthenon) are its remarkable simplicity and unity. In contrast to the elegant, complex bifold geometry of the Ionic and the florid outburst that is the Corinthian, the Doric capital is composed of two visually balanced elemental elements: a thick, squared slab called the abacus and a flaring, circular pillow beneath named the echinus. Usually, but not always, three concentric fillets transition the echinus to the shaft, known as annulets.

Even more so than the Ionic order, the origin of the Doric is too diffuse to pinpoint, but the Archaic Greek impetus to erect monumental dressed stone temples to their gods obviously sprang from the example of the sacred architecture of ancient Egypt, a civilization then already in terminal decline. In the late Archaic period the Greeks and Egypt were carrying out extensive trade and by the 7th century BC Greek neighborhoods and trading centers had become established in Egypt's most important cities.

The general influence of Egypt is clear, as is the direct precedent of the colonnade at Saqqara (above). We find fluting, inverted from the bowed ribs at Saqqara , and the same æsthetic/geometric/volumetric rigor, elegance and abstraction. What is so fascinating with the Doric is exactly this deliberate abstraction, this remarkable renunciation of naturalistic ornament—exactly as we find at Saqqara. In fact, the Doric appears deliberately conceived to embody austere geometry and clear, rectilinear volumetrics.

A circular echinus supporting a square abacus. (Above, a capital at the Temple of Zeus at Olympia.) The circle and the square: Heaven and Earth. The ancient Egyptian principle of "as above, so below" has been purified and abstracted and, I believe, a unity of opposites is being expressed. The Egyptian duality is transformed into a single, fusional idea, most clearly palpable in the overarching æsthetic sense—this volumetric, geometric, abstract rigor I keep referring to—that is the glue that bonds these constituent ideograms together: the concept of consciousness itself. Man, the abstract thinker.

It is no coincidence that the Doric temple makes its appearance in the midst of the intellectual ferment that also sees philosophy's tandem birth. In a nutshell, the Doric order expresses, quite self-consciously and deliberately, the celebration of man's conscious rationality, the blossoming of Greek thought. In fact a parallel to the first recorded Western cosmology, that of Anaximander of Miletus (an Ionian, about which we'll have more to say in our next post on the Ionic), can and indeed has been drawn, but I'm not in agreement with Robert Hahn that Anaximander's vision of the earth as a thick, cylindrical wafer suspended in space finds a literal equivalent in the actual cylindrical stone blocks, or "drums" that make up a Greek column—first of all, because they are construction components and not the column itself. This is like some future archeo-anthropologist concluding that skeletons from our era exhumed with polyester clothing were doubtless acolytes of string theory, because their garments are composed of a complex interweaving of imperishable threads. Columns were conceived to be—and were preferably executed as—monoliths; assembling them from stacked drums was an expedient, a quite-literal "short-cut" never meant to bring attention to itself, let alone be celebrated as a metaphor for the divine order of creation!

But Hahn's thesis isn't totally wrong, though misplaced (and mostly irrelevant as Anaximander was born too late to have any decisive influence on the development of either the Doric or Ionic orders): Anaximander's cosmology is congruent with the column's symbolism, as both share the idea of a centered infinity and, just as importantly, an axiality that can be linked to the cosmic axis of earth and the zodiac. Vitruvius is much closer to the nub of things in symbolically equating the Doric column with man, and thus the capital with man's head, the locus of consciousness. The columns (humanity) support the roof (heaven) which shelters the sanctuary (the abode of the gods). This is the fundamental cosmology being expressed in any Greco-Roman temple. Not by accident is the word pediment, denoting the triangularly shaped wall found between the cornice and the sloping roof ends of a Greek temple, a workman's corruption of the word pyramid.

Vitruvius was certainly correct, the Doric order is the measure of man, but not in the literal sense: What is being measured is not man's body but his mind.

Coming soon: the Ionic order.


  1. I have always enjoyed reading world history and simply ahhdore your post because they always blend so many of my interest in such a wonderful manner. Enjoyed this post very much.

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  3. sparta and lakonia a regional history 1300 to 362 bc
    paul cartledge second edition

    The Three Dorian tribes of the Hylleis, Dymanes and Pamphyloi most likely point of immediate origin is the Illyrian-Epirote region of northwest greece, whch had been for the most part untouched by Mycenan civilization. some have seen an etymological link between the names Hylleis and Illyria. But the Dorians may have been impelled and even joined by peoples still further north.The etymology of Dorians is unclear bu their alleged connection with Doris in central Greece was pobably invented or at least enhanced by later propaganda from as early as 17th century

    Nothing Greek about Doric Order

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