What Is an Entablature? How to Get That Greek Revival Look

Entablature of the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, DC
Entablature of the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, DC. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images News/Getty Images (cropped)
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What is the Greek Revival Look?

Front view of Bellevue Mansion in LaGrange, Georgia. 19th Century Greek Revival, c. 1855
Bellevue Mansion in LaGrange, Georgia. 19th Century Greek Revival, c. 1855. Photo by Jeff Greenberg/UIG/Universal Images Group Collection/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. Think of the White House and the US Capitol building in Washington, DC to note the reuse of columns and entablatures. Even into the 20th century, the Jefferson Memorial and the US 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?

The following pages define entablature and then, at the end, you can Test Your Knowledge.

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What is an entablature?

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

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::

"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, American House Styles, Norton, 1994, p. 170
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What is an architrave?

Ionic column, architrave, and frieze on Temple of Saturnus, Roman Forum, Italy
Ionic column, architrave, and frieze on Temple of Saturnus, Roman Forum, Italy. Photo by 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 corniceabove 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 for Architrave

  • epistyle
  • epistylo
  • door frame
  • lintel
  • crossbeam

What is that fancy carved band above the architrave? Read on.

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What is a frieze?

Classical Revival Mansion from 19th Century Georgia
Classical Revival Mansion from 19th Century Georgia. Photo by VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm/Photodisc/Getty Images (cropped)

A frieze, the middle part of an entablature, is a horizontal band that runs above the architraveand 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 US Supreme Court Building, a motto or adage—Equal Justice Under Law.

The word is pronounced like freeze, but it's never spelled that way.

In the building shown here, look at the dentil, the repeated "tooth-like" pattern above the frieze. What is the topmost part of the entablature, above the frieze? Read on.

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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. Photo by Dennis K. Johnson/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images (cropped)

In Western Classical architecture, the cornice is the upper portion of the entablature, located above the architrave and the frieze.

Greek and Roman Origins:

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 (view illustration of Ionic cornice) may have had the same functionality as a cornice atop a Corinthian column (view illustration of Corinthian Cornice), but the design probably would be different.

So, what is a cornice? It's useful decor.

Source: 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

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Test Your Knowledge

Entablature of the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, DC
Entablature of the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, DC. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images News/Getty Images (cropped)

In this short photo gallery, you've seen illustrations and photos of the vertical and horizontal details associated with ancient Greek and Roman architecture. Now, test your knowledge by pointing out these elements of a Classical Order in this photo of the U.S. Supreme Court, a Greek Revival building in Washington, DC. Now you know.

  • column
  • column capital
  • architrave
  • frieze
  • cornice
  • entablature
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Your Citation
Craven, Jackie. "What Is an Entablature? How to Get That Greek Revival Look." ThoughtCo, Jan. 10, 2017, thoughtco.com/what-is-an-entablature-3953692. Craven, Jackie. (2017, January 10). What Is an Entablature? How to Get That Greek Revival Look. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-an-entablature-3953692 Craven, Jackie. "What Is an Entablature? How to Get That Greek Revival Look." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-an-entablature-3953692 (accessed November 19, 2017).