What Is a Pediment? Make Your Home a Greek Temple

Classical Geometry

Pediment of the Griswold House at Florence Griswold Museum, Old Lyme, Connecticut
Pediment of the Griswold House at Florence Griswold Museum, Old Lyme, Connecticut. Photo by Stephen Saks/Lonely Planet Images Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

A pediment is a low-pitched triangular gable originally found on temples in ancient Greece and Rome and later imitated in Greek Revival and Neo-Classical house styles. Use of pediments has been freely adapted in many styles of architecture, yet remains most closely associated with Greek and Roman (i.e., Classical) derivatives.

The word pediment is thought to have come from the word meaning pyramid, as the triangular pediment has a spatial dimension similar to the pyramid.

What's the Use of Pediments?

Originally the pediment had a structural function. As the Jesuit priest Marc-Antoine Laugier explained in 1755, the pediment is one of only three essential elements of the basic Primitive Hut. For many Greek Temples, first made of wood, the triangular geometry had a structural function.

Fast forward 2,000 years from ancient Greece and Rome to the Baroque period of art and architecture, when the pediment became an ornamental detail to be extravagantly modified.

Pediments are most often used today to create a solid, regal, stately look-and-feel to the architecture, such as is used for banks, museums, and government buildings. Often, the triangular space is filled with symbolic statuary when a message need be proclaimed. The space within the frame of a pediment is called the tympanum.

Examples of Pediments:

  • Virginia State Capitol Building in Richmond, Virginia
  • Petra, Jordan
  • Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello, incorporates Classical design by using not only a pediment but also a dome—very much like the Pantheon in Rome.

Definitions by Others:

"pediment: the triangular gable defined by the crown molding at the edge of a gabled roof and the horizontal line between the eaves."— John Milnes Baker, AIA

Types of Pediments:

  1. triangular
  2. broken
  3. segmental: also called round or curved pediments
  4. open: the usual strong horizontal line of the pediment is absent or nearly absent
  5. Florentine
  6. Swan-necked: a type of broken pediment in a highly ornamented S-shape

What is a broken pediment?

In a broken pediment, the pediment outline is non-continuous. The "broken" space is usually at the top apex (eliminating the top angle), but sometimes at the bottom horizontal side (examples of broken pediments). Broken pediments are found in Baroque architecture, a period of "experimentalism in detail," according to Professor Talbot Hamlin, FAIA. The pediment became an architectural detail with little or no structural function.

"Baroque detail thus became a matter of the increasingly free modification of forms originally classic, to made them sensitive to every possible nuance of emotional expression. Pediments were broken and their sides curved and scrolled, separated by cartouches, or urns; columns were twisted, moldings duplicated and reduplicated to give sharp emphasis, and broken suddenly out and in where a complexity of shadow was desired."—Hamlin, p. 427

What is a Florentine pediment?

Before Baroque, architects of the early Renaissance, when sculptors became architects, developed a decorative styling of pediments.

Over the years, this architectural detail became known as "Florentine pediments," after their use in Florence, Italy.

"It consists of a semicircular form placed above the entablature, and as wide as the enclosing columns or pilasters. Usually a simple ban of moldings runs around it, and the semicircular field below is often decorated with a shell, although sometimes molded panels and even figures are found. Little rosettes and leaf and flower forms are usually used to fill the corner between the ends of the semicircle and the cornice below, and also as a finial at the top."—Hamlin, p. 331

Pediments for the 21st Century:

Why do we use pediments? They give a sense of tradition to a home, in the Western Classical architecture sense. Also, the geometric design itself is innately pleasing to the human senses.

  For today's homeowners, creating a pediment is a rather simple, inexpensive way to add decoration—usually over a door.

Have pediments gone sideways? Today's modern skyscraper architects use triangles for structural strength as well as beauty. David Childs' design for One World Trade Center (2014) is a good example of aesthetically pleasing grandeur. Norman Foster's Hearst Tower (2006) is filled with triangulation; it's beauty is up for discussion.

Other Uses of the Word "Pediment"

  • Antique Furniture
  • Geology

Sources: American House Styles: A Concise Guide by John Milnes Baker, AIA, Norton, 1994, p. 175; Architecture through the Ages by Talbot Hamlin, Putnam, Revised 1953, pp. 444, 427, 331