Hellenistic Architecture: Theatrical and Scholarly Forms

Pollitt J.J.  1986.  “Hellenistic Architecture: Theatricality and Scholarly Forms.”  In Art in the Hellenistic Age, 230-249.  Cambridge.  Cambridge University Press.

12 thoughts on “Hellenistic Architecture: Theatrical and Scholarly Forms

    • Pollitt argues that Hellenistic Period architecture departs from earlier periods in three ways. First, there is more of an emphasis placed on theatricality and emotionality as it can be represented in interior spaces. Second, the intellectual movements of the Hellenistic Period influence the proportionality of architecture, leading to a drive towards creating didactic models such as in Vitruvius’ De Architectura. Third, the Corinthian order comes into full swing during the Hellenistic Period and it is used in both political and religious buildings. In these three ways, Pollitt believes that Hellenistic Period architecture differs from its predecessors.

      • Can these developments be seen in other aspects of Hellenistic Society, or are they confined to architecture alone?

  1. Choose one of the following buildings and discuss the theatricality of the design:
    1) Sanctuary of Asklepios at Kos
    2) Temple of Apollo at Didyma
    3) Temple of Athena at Lindos
    4) Pergamon

    • Pergamon-

      Pergamon has the three tiered design that is present at the Sanctuary of Asklepios of Kos, but instead of applying this design to a temple or sanctuary area; the tiered design is applied to the entire city. The city of Pergamon is physically and ideologically defined into three distinct spaces. The first of which is the lower tier. This space was for “the mundane affairs of life.” The second tier was “connected with education and the development of the mind.” The third tier was for “divine power and supreme cultural achievement.” (Pollitt 233) The lower tier contained the agora, the middle contained the gymnasia, and the highest tier contained the important deities of Pergamon. Within this plan there are even more distinctions. For example there are different levels for the ages and education of boys. The imposing architecture and carefully chosen terrain had a profoundly dramatic psychological impact on the viewer. The design had a physical and symbolic idea of ascension upwards. The symbolism, terrain, and architecture added to the theatrical effect of this city.

      On a side note, I have a question about gender divisions. How did women function within this city? Would they be permitted to walk through the heavily dominated male parts to get to the sanctuaries of the third tier? Wouldn’t this pose a conflicting problem for the males in this city?

      • Priestesses and participants in religious ritual are the major exception to the Greek desire to limit female freedom of movement. In addition, the standards we have explored that idealize the confinement of female members of the house are most at evidence in Athens. We don’t know nearly enough about other cities to say definitely that the same ideals of restriction prevailed elsewhere. Again, even in Athens, religious ceremonies were an opportunity for both genders to participate in public ritual.


      This temple was very dramatic and theatrical in its layout, as well as in the smaller details. From the outside, the proportions appear rather traditional, but the interior is particularly unusual. There were an extra twelve columns placed inside the pronaos, which provided a “forest-like” effect for visitors. When a visitor made their way to the back of the pronaos, they would encounter a huge door, 1.46 meters off the ground, but with no staircase. Pollit explains that this door was located where the entry to the cella should have been. Because of its height, the door was probably not intended as an entry, but as a type of stage – perhaps a location from which the prophets of Apollo could announce oracle responses. From the pronaos, the entryway to the interior of the temple is through dark, descended, vaulted tunnels. These entryways would have provided a certain “air of mystery” for those traveling through them. After the visitor had made their way through the tunnels, rather than entering into the cella as expected, they came into an open-air courtyard. In the courtyard, flanked by large pilasters, was a small, much more traditional shrine to Apollo. This might have provided an element of surprise because the viewer not only found himself outside instead of in the cella, but also because he encountered another separate structure. When the visitor turned his back to the shrine and faced east back towards East, he would have seen a broad staircase leading up to three doors, separated by huge, dramatic, half corinthian columns. Through the doors was the adyton, which contained more large, dramatic, Corinthian columns. From the back mysterious spaces of the adyton, stairs led up to the roof of the temple, where a meandering design supposedly signified a type of labyrinth, perhaps associated with cult traditions. Overall, this temple is incredibly theatrical because it has several unexpected elements for the visitor and creates suspense through the use of dark passageways, doors, and mysterious staircases. The large columns, both in the pronaos and the adyton also work to achieve this dramatic effect by making the visitor feel small by comparison.

    • Temple of Athena at Lindos:
      The theatricality of the design began at the location: an acropolis projecting out to sea. Then a visitor would have to climb a series of stairs and pass through several gateways before they could see the final vista. Before this the visitor was greeted with a large Doric stoa, then as he climbed he saw a smaller Doric stoa, and through the interior a colonnaded court in front of a temple. This type of architectural planning created a series of stages that led up to the climax. The actual temple was not particularly special, but the staging made it feel that way.
      Anyone entering the temple would surely feel the anticipation of the various stairways and gates, not quite sure where they were going. This process made the temple feel that much more important, a light after a disorienting maze.

    • Sanctuary of Asklepio at Kos:

      Although the natural terrain did not enhance the theatricality or offer a dramatic view, the architects created theatrical design in their employment of of a series of rising terraces lined with stoas, multiple stairways, altars, temples, and fountains. Pollitt suggests that these architectural spaces and forms were created so that just as the presumably sick visitor would move in a ritualized manner to areas that inclined, paralleling an increase in spiritual intensity.

      The lowest terrace consisted of a U-shaped stoa, a fountain house, and a propylon. The middle terrace featured an Ionic temple, an altar building and a small stoa. The upper terrace featured a Doric temple dedicated to Asklepios which was surrounded by a U-shaped portico. It is also believed by scholars that surroundign the temple a grove of cypress trees was planted to preserve the effect of an earlier woodland shrine to the deity upon the sight.

      The theatricality in this design primarily lies in the rise of the levels which no only mirrored the elevation of the spirit as mentioned before, but also most have generated a sense of wonder at its vastness. The tiered design must have cultivated a desire among visitors to reach the highest level, climbing must have been a challenge for some of the sick visitors but the promise that awaited them at the top must have been worth the effort. This built up anticipation only increased the dramatic nature of the sight with the climax being reached when one reached the temple on the top level and could look out over the sea and experience the Cypress grove. Walking through the various tiers and their forms also must have been disorienting to the visitor, making the top somewhat open level a welcome conclusion.

  2. What techniques were used to control a visitor’s perceptions of a building or complex during the Hellenistic Period?

    • A technique used to control a visitor’s perceptions of a complex was that the arrangement of individual sanctuaries and public buildings were adapted and dramatized with the terrain. the layouts would engage the visitor’s emotions and intellect. The up and down of hills would reveal new sanctuaries. Tunnels and vaulted entrances followed the rising terrain as a symbolic way of connecting education and the development of the mind to express divine powers.

  3. How was the experience of the visitor to a Hellenistic temple or complex different than that of a visitor to an Archaic or Classical Period complex?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *