Collage by Simeon Mihaylov
Collage by Simeon Mihaylov

Deciphering Classical Architecture

Searching for Classical Architecture's Lost Soul with George Hersey

‘In general we no longer understand architecture… [An] atmosphere of inexhaustible meaningfulness hung about [an ancient] building like a magic veil. Beauty entered the system only secondarily, without impairing the basic feeling of uncanny sublimity, of sanctification by magic or the gods’ nearness. At most the beauty tempered the dread—but this dread was the prerequisite everywhere.’

Nietzsche, Human, All-too-Human

If classical architecture ever used to mean anything, that meaning got lost somewhere amidst the heap of entablatures, capitals, apses, etc. chiselled over the centuries. That at least was the sentiment that gave birth to modernist architecture and the movements that succeeded it. Modernism was a response to an architecture that had lost its soul. By that time, the art of building had become the art of making a copy of a copy of an old building that was itself put together out of a number of standard elements listed in the architectural catalogue.

Every architect was supposed to know what a tympanum or a frieze was, where they were supposed to go, and, if he was worth his pay, how they were made. But were you to ask one such fifteenth, sixteenth or seventeenth-century architect what the actual meaning of these elements was, your question would’ve met with confusion. Why, these elements simply make up the anatomy of a building; to ask what a column means is as silly as asking what your femur or your triceps means.


Unbeknownst to themselves, every builder incorporating those classical elements was unwittingly propagating an ancient Hellenistic building tradition rooted in pagan blood rituals. The classical forms we have come to associate with refinement are in fact allusions to the most primitive origins of western civilization. But I’ll back up a bit.

It would be impossible to recover the meaning of ancient architecture if to do so depended on architects keeping tabs on their precedents. What does make it possible is a far more trustworthy bookkeeper: language.

Fortunately, the names by which we refer to the elements of classical architecture have survived the mists of time and we can be certain that by triglyph today we mean the same thing as what Vitruvius did. We have sources even older than him that confirm the extraordinary age of such architectural terms. Therefore, the search for classical architecture’s lost soul is really a linguistic exercise. That is just how Yale University Professor George Hersey approached it in his thought-provoking book The Lost Meaning of Classical Architecture.

In his book, Hersey analyses classical architecture as one would dissect a poem. Each element is a term that carries meaning. Each term, usually Greek, sometimes Latin, is a trope that contains a number of connotations. Each connotation is a piece of a puzzle which, in its entirety, gives a sense of the true, multilayered meaning of the element. And it all harkens back to pagan sacrifice.

The sacrifice of a pig in ancient Greece.
(tondo from an Attic red-figure cup, 510–500 BC, by the Epidromos Painter, collections of the Louvre)

The essence of ancient sacrificial rituals was this: the destruction of the profane and its reconstruction as sacred. Death and rebirth.

An animal, sometimes a human, would be led to the altar accompanied by music and dancing. The sacrifice would be killed, its blood becoming sacrament and its body taken apart, skin, bones, innards and all. Then the body would be put back together, becoming an image of itself, the divine soul within it manifested. Sometimes the innards would be used by the oracle for divination. Sometimes the blood would be drunk, body parts eaten, so that the divine contents of the sacrifice may enter the worshippers, making them one with the divine in turn.

These chilling practices seem like distant fragments of a dead past. That is, until one starts to translate the meaning of classical architecture.

Let’s begin with the column. The basis of a column means a foot. The connection with sacrificial rituals is most evident in Baroque statue-columns whose bases are bound like the feet of a sacrificial offering. The horizontal shadows at the columns’ bases are created by a moulding called scotia. That was also the name of the ancient Greek goddess of darkness and underworld things. For the ancient Greeks, darkness was a numinous substance enriched with the souls of the dead. The shadows dropped by a column’s scotia suggest the underworld and its inhabitants.

The flutes of a column are also a common characteristic. Their original Greek name bears the connotation of spears. These ‘spears’ begin at the base and end in the capital, which is an overt allusion to the head of the sacrificial animal. This is most evident in Ionic and Corinthian capitals which have horns like the horns of the sacrificial goat or the horn headdress worn by Cypriot priests. Horns were believed to contain the psyche (or soul) of the sacrifice and were therefore considered precious and were often ceremonially gilded. The floral motifs of such capitals further represent the garlands around the sacrificial head perched on top of a spear.

Hersey connects this idea with the story of king Pelops who worshipped the heads of his slain enemies, honouring their spirits and thus preventing retaliation. This finds expression in classical architecture even more overtly than in the capital; a series of decorative heads is a familiar motif.

The linguistic analysis continues with the entablature above the column. The Greek name for it literally means table as in the sacrificial table which would hold the offerings to the gods. And such offerings we do find on the entablature.

The famous egg-and-dart moulding is also steeped in sacrificial symbolism. The egg symbolises the soul in a number of spiritual traditions and was often present among sacrificial offerings.
CC BY-SA 3.0

The thighs of an animal and their life-giving fluids were among the most precious offerings, as Homer often mentions in his epics. The entablature is composed of triglyphs and metopes. As glyph means something cut or carved, one can assume that the triglyphs represent a thigh cut in three. This is further elaborated by the guttae – literally drops – underneath, which mark the blood and fat (life-giving fluids) draining under the cut thighbone.

A curious fact is that the functional purpose of the guttae is to collect rainwater and drive it away from the façade. This completes the metaphor of the sacred fluids as the guttae visualise them with the waters of the heavenly realm.

‘Temples sweat, as stone sweats, and they weep with rain, and the mouldings and ornament channel those fluids exactly as their counterparts [blood, fat, etc.] are channelled in sacrifices, where the altars are equipped with gratings and tubes for the flow and collection of blood, wine, honey, and other offered substances’

George Hersey

We can see that there is a linear evolution from the ancient pagan tribes who ‘set stones vertically in solid earth… decorated them with unguents, garlands, and clothing… sprinkled them with blood…’ (Hyginus Gromaticus) and classical architecture, which sprang as an abstraction of the same practices. Vitruvius’ later efforts to dimension every architectural element according to the ratios of the human body is only a further abstraction of the same idea. The proportions of the body – rather than the body itself – are taken apart and then put back together in the form of a temple embodying the divine soul. Centuries later, even the most fervent of modernists would not resist the subconscious call of this primitive idea, as the Modulor plainly shows us.

This very idea is said to have given birth to the Doric order. The legend goes that when the Dorians made their conquest of Asia, they populated it with their temples. These temples were dimensioned after the proportions of the Dorian men and therefore enforced Dorian presence on the land. The conquerors were literally reborn as their monuments; there to be seen by their subjects as a constant reminder of their supremacy. The characteristic curvature of columns (entasis, literally tension) further elaborates the idea of ancient Doric temples with their columns representing rows of Dorian men. Men straining under the weight of the abundant offerings they carry for the gods.

Early Doric Temple
CC BY-SA 3.0

George Hersey’s linguistic analysis of classical architecture reveals a wealth of meaning hidden within the ancient forms we have so eagerly copied for centuries, clueless to their true significance. His research shows that classical buildings were encoded with enormous quantities of information about the culture that produced them. These architectural artefacts were for the ancients what hard drives are for us.

Monumental architecture was a significant undertaking for our ancestors and they treated it as a sacred art. They endeavoured to carve their culture, beliefs, and lives in the stones of their temples. In the fifteenth century, when Brunelleschi decided to adopt their forms, he seemed to have set off a rebirth of classical architecture. The Renaissance followed and all things ‘classical’ overtook Europe. Columns started appearing around every corner. They were pretty and nobody seemed to care what they meant. Clearly, that ‘rebirth’ was stillbirth, body only, no soul.

It is a testament to the artistic flair of classical designers that their forms captured the western imagination for centuries after their original cultures were dead, their meaning forgotten. The classical forms of architecture are so rich in evocative content that it took Europe three centuries to shake off its blind admiration for them, if it ever did so. One only wonders what Iktinos and Callicrates would think if they could see President Trump slouched in his chair while outside images of sacrificial offerings decorate the capitals of the White House. Perhaps they would think it appropriate? Food for thought.