The Entablature Helps You Get That Greek Revival Look

detail of stone portico, showing the tops of fluted columns, fancy capitals, a carved inscription (equal justice under law), dentils, and part of a pediment filled with sculture
Entablature of the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, DC. Win McNamee/Getty Images (cropped)

The entablature is a defining element of Classical architecture and its derivatives. It is the upper portion of the building or portico — all of the horizontal architectural detailing above the vertical columns. The entablature generally rises in horizontal layers up to either the roof, the triangular pediment, or arch.

 This short photo gallery illustrates the vertical and horizontal details associated with ancient Greek and Roman architecture. All of the elements of a Classical Order can be found on certain buildings, like the Neoclassical U.S. Supreme Court building, a majestic Greek Revival structure in Washington, D.C. Where is the column, column capital, architrave, frieze, cornice, and entablature? Let's find out.

01
of 05

What is the Greek Revival look?

Front view of mansion with two-story fluted columns supporting a two-story front porch (portico)
Bellevue Mansion in LaGrange, Georgia. 19th Century Greek Revival, c. 1855. Jeff Greenberg/UIG/Getty Images

The entablature and columns make up what is known as the Classical Orders of Architecture. These are the architectural elements from ancient Greece and Rome that define that era's architecture and its revival styles.

As America grew to be an independent global influence, its architecture became appropriately grand, imitating Classical architecture — the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome, the ancient civilizations that epitomized integrity and invented moral philosophy. The "revival" of Classical architecture in the 19th century has been called Greek Revival, Classical Revival, and Neo-Classical. Many of the public buildings in Washington, D.C., such as of the White House and the U.S. Capitol building, are designed with columns and entablatures. Even into the 20th century, the Jefferson Memorial and the U.S. Supreme Court Building show the power and grandeur of the colonnade.

To design a Greek Revival building is to use the elements of the Classical Orders of Architecture.

One element of Greek and Roman architecture is the type and style of column. Only one of the five column designs is used to create a building, because each column style has its own entablature design. If you mixed the column types, the entablature would not have a consistent look. So, what is this entablature?

02
of 05

What is an entablature?

Illustration shows parts of the Entablature (cornice, frieze, architrave) with capital and column
Parts of the Entablature and Column. The Science of Common Things by David A. Wells, 1857, courtesy Florida Center for Instructional Technology (FCIT), ClipArt ETC (cropped)

The entablature and columns make up what is known as the Classical Orders of Architecture. Each Classical Order (e.g., Doric, Ionic, Corinthian) has its own design — both column and entablature are unique to the character of the order.

Pronounced en-TAB-la-chure, the word entablature is from the Latin word for table. The entablature is like a table top on the legs of the columns. Each entablature traditionally has three main parts by definition, as explained by architect John Milnes Baker:

"entablature: the top portion on a classical order supported by columns which forms the base for the pediment. It consists of the architrave, the frieze, and the cornice." — John Milnes Baker, AIA
03
of 05

What is an architrave?

Ionic column, architrave, and frieze
Detail on the Temple of Saturnus, Roman Forum, Italy. Tetra Images/Getty Images (cropped)

The architrave is the lowest part of an entablature, resting horizontally directly on the capitals (tops) of the columns. The architrave supports the frieze and the cornice above it.

The way that an architrave looks is determined by the Classical Orders of Architecture. Shown here is the top capital of an Ionic column (note the scroll-shaped volutes and the egg-and-dart designs). The Ionic architrave is the horizontal crossbeam, rather plain compared with the ornately carved frieze above it.

Pronounced ARK-ah-trayv, the word architrave is similar to the word architect. The Latin prefix archi- means "chief." An architect is the "chief carpenter," and an architrave is the "chief beam" of the structure.

Architrave has also come to refer to the moulding around a door or a window. Other names used to mean architrave may include epistyle, epistylo, door frame, lintel, and crossbeam.

The fancy carved band above the architrave is called the frieze.

04
of 05

What is a frieze?

flat-roofed mansion with imposing classical facade, including large, two-story tall columns and an ornate horzontal band between the column capitals and the dentils under the roof eave
Classical Revival Mansion from 19th Century Georgia. VisionsofAmerica/Getty Images (cropped)

A frieze, the middle part of an entablature, is a horizontal band that runs above the architrave and below the cornice in Classical architecture. The frieze may be decorated with designs or carvings.

In fact, the roots of the word frieze mean ornamentation and decoration. Because the Classical frieze is often ornately carved, the word is also used to describe the wide, horizontal bands above doorways and windows and on interior walls below the cornice. These areas are ready for ornamentation or are already highly decorated.

In some Greek Revival architecture, the frieze is like a modern billboard, advertising wealth, beauty, or, in the case of the U.S. Supreme Court Building, a motto or adage — Equal Justice Under Law.

In the building shown here, look at the dentil, the repeated "tooth-like" pattern above the frieze. The word is pronounced like freeze, but it's never spelled that way.

05
of 05

What is a cornice?

Detail of the marble Ionic columns, architrave, frieze and cornice of the Erechtheion on the Acropolis, Athens, Greece
Details of Erechtheion, Acropolis, Athens, Greece. Dennis K. Johnson/Getty Images (cropped)

In Western Classical architecture, the cornice is architecture's crown — the upper portion of the entablature, located above the architrave and the frieze. The cornice was a part of the decorative design associated with the column type of the Classical Orders of Architecture.

The cornice atop an Ionic column may have the same functionality as a cornice atop a Corinthian column, but the design probably would be different. In ancient Classical architecture, as well as its derivative revivals, architectural details may have the same functionality but the ornamentation may be markedly different. The entablature says it all.

Sources

  • American House Styles, John Milnes Baker, AIA, Norton, 1994, p. 170
  • Illustration of Ionic Cornice from the Temple of Minerva Polias at Priene and Illustration of a Corinthian Cornice are both from A Handbook of Architectural Styles by Rosengarten and Collett-Sandars, 1895, courtesy Florida Center for Instructional Technology (FCIT), ClipArt ETC