The Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae and its Orders
Classical Comments by Calder Loth
Senior Architectural Historian for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Member of the Institute of Classical Classical Architecture & Art‘s Advisory Council.
High on a mountaintop in the Peloponnese, the fifth-century B.C. Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae is among the least known, least accessible, and most intriguing of all Greek temples. (Fig. 1) It is the only Greek temple to have incorporated all three ancient orders in its design: Doric for the exterior, Ionic for the cella or naos, and a single Corinthian column marking the entrance to the adyton or inner sanctum. The 2nd-century A.D. Greek traveler and geographer, Pausanias, stated that Iktinos, best-known as one of the Parthenon architects, designed the temple, but scholars have found no further evidence to document his attribution. The temple was unknown to James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, so it was not included in their pioneering and highly influential treatise The Antiquities of Athens (1762-1795). It finally received serious study in 1811-12 when the temple was the subject of an expedition that included British architect Charles R. Cockerell and German scholar Karl Haller von Hallerstein. They and their colleagues undertook detailed measurements and drawings, but also plundered the site for artifacts.
Exposure to the elements on Mount Kotilion has caused progressive deterioration of the temple’s predominately limestone fabric. In 1987, the entire structure was covered with a canopy supported on a metal framework to provide temporary protection from damaging winds and rain while long-term conservation is undertaken. (Fig. 2) Although this huge tent hinders viewing the temple in context, it has a dramatic sculptural quality of its own. No schedule for the canopy’s removal has been announced, and such protection may need to be permanent.
Despite the canopy, it is possible to walk the temple’s perimeter within. Most of the thirty-eight Doric columns of the exterior peristyle have survived in situ. (Fig. 3) Two of the columns and sections of the naos walls were reassembled in a program of anastylosis undertaken in 1902-08. Antiseismic scaffolding erected in 1985 included wooden braces clasping the tops of the Doric columns just under the capitals. Although attributed to Iktinos, earthquake damage and settlement have made it difficult to determine whether the temple incorporated the visual refinements found in the Parthenon. Nonetheless, seeing the temple moved Pausanias to write, “Of all the temples in Peloponnese, next to the one at Tega, this may be placed first for the beauty of the stone and the symmetry of its proportions.”
The temple plan illustrates the unique arrangement of the interior, which for clarity I will describe in the present tense. (Fig. 4) Passing through the north portico columns, the pronaos, or vestibule, is entered between two free-standing Doric columns. The pronaos precedes the naos or temple sanctuary. Defining the naos are five spurs or fins projecting from each of the side walls, forming recesses possibly used for shrines. Clasping each spur end is a fluted Ionic column topped by a distinctive capital. On axis at the far end of the naos is a single Corinthian column. Beyond the column is the adyton or inner sanctum where the most sacred ceremonies were performed. The central position of the Corinthian column has led some scholars to conclude that the image of the deity, probably a statue of Apollo, was positioned off axis. A tall opening in the adyton’s left side allowed daylight to illuminate the statue and back-light the column, creating a singularly dramatic effect.
A somewhat romanticized view of the temple interior made by Charles Cockerell in 1860, displays the axial placement of the Corinthian column and the flanking Ionic columns that terminated the projecting spurs. (Fig. 5) Also depicted is the richly sculpted frieze that topped the naos walls. The surviving sections of the frieze were extracted from the ruins by Cockerell and his colleagues during in their 1811-12 expedition and sold to the British Museum in 1814, where they are displayed today. The concave abacuses of the Ionic capitals are conjectural since none of the capitals remained in situ. The vaulted ceiling is conjectural as well. Shown also in the image is the off-center statue of a deity, which appears to be a female figure rather than Apollo. Cockerell’s view, however, captures the striking quality of the adyton’s indirect lighting, pouring in from the side opening shown on the plan.
Possibly the earliest published image of the distinctive Bassae Ionic capital and its base appeared in a German edition of Charles Pierre Joseph Normand’s Nouvelle Parallèle des Ordres d’Architecture, published in three parts in 1830-36. (Fig. 6) Normand accurately depicted the capital’s arched top, a conspicuous departure from the flattened volute tops found in nearly all other ancient versions of the Ionic capital. He shows no abacus since, as his narrative states, it was not in existence in its original form. Normand admits, however, that the central anthemion or honeysuckle ornament was his own conjecture. The capital had no evidence of any ornaments either there or in the echinus. Normand’s illustration of the base accurately records its strong curved projection (an exaggerated scotia). Several of these unusual bases remain in place in the temple today.
The British Museum holds what is believed to be the only known original fragment of the temple’s Ionic capitals. (Fig. 7) Charles Cockerell salvaged it from the ruin during his 1811-12 expedition and later presented it to the museum. While the fragment is only a portion of a volute, enough is intact to appreciate the bold curve of the top edge. We are not told whether Cockerell and his colleagues found more Ionic capital fragments during their venture. Indeed, Haller von Hallerstein’s ca. 1812 drawings, the earliest reliable depictions of the temple, show none of the capitals in place. Consequently, this rare artifact remains the one tangible clue to the singular shape of the Bassae Ionic.
The Bassae Ionic has inspired numerous modern versions. Appropriately, Charles Cockerell was perhaps the first to use the order when he applied it to the columns of the portico and side elevations of Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum and Taylorian Institute, built 1841-45. (Fig. 8) Its use for an exterior was considered somewhat daring since the order was originally an interior order. Cockerell was faithful to the original by avoiding ornaments on the volutes as shown in Normand’s Parallèle. However, he added discreet ornamentation to the abacus and echinus and topped it with an abacus employing concave sides and sharp tips. We can only speculate that he was basing the sharp tips on fragments that he may have seen in the ruin. Alternatively, he may have derived the abacus design from the abacus of the temple’s Corinthian capital. In any case, the architectural details of the pediment are entirely Cockerell’s, including the plaited decoration of the pulvinated frieze, an arresting treatment of an exterior frieze having no ancient precedent.
Daniel Burnham devoted as much attention to the decorative details of Washington’s Union Station as he did to the functionality and engineering of this great classical landmark, completed in 1908. This is evident in the terminal’s original main dining room (now a gift shop), which is a festival of Grecian decorations. The room’s walls are divided into a series of bays with recessed panels framed by fluted columns in the Bassae Ionic order. (Fig. 9) The capitals are picked out in gold, green, and red, a color pallet repeated in the entablature and other decorations. Burnham also employed the Bassae Ionic for the columns supporting the canopies on the lower track platforms. (Fig. 10) In both places, the capitals are decorated with enlarged anthemion ornaments and egg-and-dart echinuses, details shown in Normand’s Parallèle but not found on the originals.
The architectural firm of Zantzinger, Borie, and Medary applied a modified version of the Bassae Ionic for the corner pavilions of the 1931-34 Department of Justice in Washington’s Federal Triangle. (Fig. 11) The capitals are true to the Bassae precedent with their arched tops, but are expressed with parallel volutes rather than volutes having the forward curvature of the originals. Other departures from the original model are the egg-and-dart echinuses and the concave abacuses with their chamfered tips. As noted above, the form or even the existence of original abacuses is uncertain. However, following Normand’s conjecture, the capitals have an anthemion ornament in their centers.
It is gratifying when one can discover a creative use of a rare and beautiful classical feature in one’s hometown. Such a find occurs on a small but elegant bank in Richmond’s historic Church Hill neighborhood. (Fig. 12) Appropriately named The Church Hill Bank, the building was designed by local architect Bascom J. Rowlett and opened 1914. The main entrance is framed by two engaged columns in the Bassae Ionic order with each topped by a seated eagle holding wings aloft. (Fig. 13) As with other modern versions, the volutes are flat-faced rather than gently curved forward. While Rowlett’s source for the order is not documented, a likely candidate is William R. Ware’s The American Vignola (1903), which illustrates the Bassae capital with a similar thick block for the abacus. The American Vignola was a standard textbook for American architects in the early 20th century.
Most scholars contend that the temple’s Corinthian capital is the earliest known use of the Corinthian order. The illustration shown here was drawn by J. M. von Mauch for the 1830-36 German edition of Normand’s Parallèle, and is based on field notes and sketches by Haller von Hallerstein of fragments found during his 1811-12 expedition to the site. (Fig. 14) Regrettably, only a few of the fragments survive, preserved in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Even so, several parts of the illustration in the Parallèle are conjectural, such the flaring of the tops of the shaft flutes since the upper part of the shaft did not survive. The tips of the abacus were missing too, so it is uncertain whether they were pointed or chamfered. Nevertheless, Mauch’s restoration has a distinctive beauty and it is lamentable that it has inspired so few modern replications.
A rare (possibly unique) use of the Bassae Corinthian for an American house appears on the porch of the 1850 Hackerman house, an Italianate mansion on Baltimore’s prestigious Mount Vernon Place. (Fig. 15) The order is employed for both the forward and recessed porch columns as well as for the hall columns of the lavish interior. Designed by the Baltimore architectural partnership of Niernsee and Neilson for Dr. John Hanson Thomas, the house became part of the Walters Art Museum complex in 1985. (Fig. 16) A native of Vienna, Austria, architect John Rudolph Niernsee studied in Prague and settled in Baltimore in 1839. His source for the order was likely the German edition of Normand’s Nouvelle Parallèle des Ordres d’Architecture,(1830-36), which included J. M. von Mauch’s plate 78 showing the Bassae Corinthian.
Undoubtedly, the most ingenious and informed modern-day reference to the Temple of Apollo Epicurius is the Fellows’ Dining Hall of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University. (Fig. 17) Designed by John Simpson and opened in 1998, the room is a reduced version of the temple’s naos, complete with the spurs fronted by their Ionic order, and the single Corinthian column on axis. All of the elements in the room are richly decorated with Grecian-style polychrome ornamentation that sets off the custom-designed Grecian-style furnishings. The Ionic capitals are true to the originals by lacking the anthemion ornaments added by Normand. Simpson employs a square abacus for the capitals with detailing echoing that on the Corinthian capital abacus. (Fig. 18)
17. Fellows’ Dining Hall, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University, England (Courtesy of John Simpson Architects)
18. Ionic capital, Fellows’ Dining Hall, Gonville and Caius College (Courtesy of John Simpson Architects)
The focal point of Simpson’s Fellows’ Dining Hall is the single Corinthian column following the precedent of the original. The polychromy and gilding emphasize the special beauty of this elegant order. (Fig. 19) The only liberty taken with known features of the capital is the insertion of a double row of compressed acanthus leaves at its base in place of the single row of leaves shown in Haller von Hallerstein’s drawing. Since Haller was working from fragments, it’s possible that an extra row was missing and therefore he didn’t draw one.
John Simpson’s strikingly handsome room is clear demonstration that the Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae yet offers design resources appropriate for adaptation in contemporary classical projects. It is important for such notable works of the past to continue to inform designs of today.
The author is grateful to Dr. George Skarmeas and his wife Dominique Hawkins for generously taking me to the temple in 2007.
Johann Matthaus von Mauch & Charles Pierre Joseph Normand, Parallel of the Classical Orders of Architecture, Compiled and edited by Donald M. Rattner (Institute for the Study of Classical Architecture, Acanthus Press, 1998).
Alexander Tzonis & Phoebe Giannisi, Classical Greek Architecture: The Construction of the Modern, (Flammarion, Paris 2004).
Kali Tzortzi, The Temple of Apollo Epikourios: A Journey through Time and Space, (Ministry of Culture, Committee for the Preservation of the Temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassai, 2001).
David Watkin, The Life and Work of C.R. Cockerell, (A. Zwemmer Ltd, London, 1974).