Interiors of Greek Temples in Archaic and Classical Times

Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Helga Bumke

In Greek Archaeology, Architectural Research is dealing mainly with the outer appearance and the mathematical composition of the Greek temple. However, for the function of the temple it is not the material structure but rather the circumscribed and structured spaces that play a major role. For whatever reason, the interiors have not been scientifically investigated so far. Single aspects, like the cult images and their bases or the architectural characteristics of the capitals of the interior columns, remain examined in their subject area, a larger overview is lacking.
Although the importance of the cult image in its 'shrine' was always perceived by classical scholars, beyond that the interior of the temple has always been more than 'only' a depository for the image of the deity. Yet unlike in Christian churches, the centre of the religious community rituals at Greek temples lay at the altar in front of the temple. It was there that the citizens gathered and performed their acts of worship after an upheaval of the social structures in the Late Geometric period. Previously, religious rituals and sacrifices took place in smaller rectangular ‘Herdhaus’ temples around a central fireplace on the inside. Access to these smaller buildings, as well as to the concurrent elongated apsidal buildings (mostly located outside the settlements), was granted only to the local elite who held the cultic power. At the time, there was “no clear distinction between sacred and secular space” [Mazarakis Ainian 1997, 61] and the ‘temples’ inside the settlements were not distinguished from domestic architecture.
It could not yet be determined whether cult images in today’s understanding existed already in this early period or if the development occurred with the emergence of monumental temple architecture. In any case, the function of the temple changed from the early Archaic up to the High Classical times from a meeting room into a symbolic “house of the deity” (or at least to a ‘treasure house’ dedicated to the deity).
Therefore, it is of interest for my research to consider the question whether the emergence and development of the cult images had an impact on the interior design and how new rituals (e. g. staged epiphanies, ritual ablutions in front of and inside the temple, dressing and adorning of the cult image) influenced the architecture of the interior. It might be that even the citizenship as a sponsor of buildings had influence on the architectural design (or at least in the process of planning). Through the installation of movable and immovable components like walls, inner columns, doors, windows, floors, staircases, and ceiling panels, architecture has a strong influence on the process of motion by creating access systems, restricted areas and open spaces, which can be analysed and are helpful for understanding the intended effects of impression, staging, and actions. Additionally, changes in the floor area (e. g. paving, holes, or stand marks) show the exact placing of the cult image and other furniture such as barriers and tables, which give clues about the accessibility of different areas. Furthermore, differences in the levels and alternating orders of the rooms could effectively change the sense of space in the various interiors. Even changes in the performance of acts can be filtered from alterations in the building structures. With this in mind we can speak of “architecture as a document of social relations”, by which the room serves as a projection for social imagination and as a container of memory [Maran 2005: 5].
In addition to archaeological finds, both epigraphy and ancient writers provide insights into the use and decoration of Greek temple interiors, which are characterised by the interaction of cultic requirements, aesthetic feelings, and the ways of construction. All of which showcases a radical change in mentality and thinking at the beginning of the Archaic period.
There is no hint for an abrupt rupture from the small geometric ‘Herdhaus’ temple to the developed monumental peripteros temple, but its slowly establishing form in sacred architecture was like a breakthrough for Greek religion and reflects at the same time the social revolution in this time. At the same time there is a switch of emphasis and loyalty from the individual and the family to the city-state.
The Greek temples of this period of transition from Late Geometric to Classical time (from about the end of the 8th to the end of the 4th century BC) are in the focus of my research, because they are by no means as static in their design of the interior as it often seems because of its rhythmic external shape and (sometimes idealised) layouts.
Although the Greek world and the revolution in temple architecture stretched from Sicily to the west of Turkey, there are many differences besides the commonalities, so there were several regional developments and continuous exchange processes in between regions culminating in a heterogeneous architecture since Classical times.
Furthermore, not only do the material conditions of the construction processes vary chronologically and regionally, a difference in attitude of the various regions and times is also in evidence. Therefore, a close monitoring of change, diversity, and trans-regional connections in the cult architecture is essential. As a result, an attempt will be to provide an overall picture of the Archaic and Classical interior architecture and its influences on and from the social changes and differences in cultic and public life.


J. Maran, Architektur als gesellschaftlicher Raum. Zur Bedeutung sozialwissenschaftlicher Theorien für die Archäologie, Heidelberg 2005, online publication [].

A. Mazarakis Ainian, From Rulers’ Dwellings to Temples. Architecture, Religion and Society in Early Iron Age Greece (1100–700 B.C.) (Jonsered 1997).

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