The Bricks of the Ziggurat of Ur

The Ziggurat of Ur (photo taken 2005). Original structure built c. 2100 BCE. Image courtesy Wikipedia via user Hardnfast.

The Ziggurat of Ur (photo taken 2005). Original structure built c. 2100 BCE. Image courtesy Wikipedia via user Hardnfast.

Recently I learned a few interesting points about the mudbricks of the Ziggurat of Ur. This ziggurat was built around 2100 BCE by the king Ur-nammu and his son Shulgi (see a reconstruction drawing of the structure and a map of the original complex HERE). We know that this structure was built by Ur-nammu because mudbricks from this structure are stamped with Ur-nammu’s name.1 In fact, the first stage of the ziggurat construction was built using seven million mudbricks and 720,000 fired bricks.These mudbricks were created from clay and reeds. They would have been pressed into rectangular molds and left to dry in the sun, or they could have been fired to ensure the brick would better withstand moisture and wind.2  Such fired bricks weighed up to thirty-three pounds (which is impressive, but this weight pales in comparison to the Great Pyramid at Giza, where the stones weigh an average of 2.5 tons!).

Brick from the ziggurat of Ur, stamped with Ur-Nammu's name, c. 2100 BCE. Two dog's paw marks are seemingly-accidentally marked on one side. Image courtesy British Museum.

Brick from the ziggurat of Ur, stamped with Ur-Nammu’s name, c. 2100 BCE. Two dog’s paw marks are seemingly-accidentally marked on one side. Image courtesy British Museum.

The British Museum owns one such example of the stamped bricks from the Ziggurat of Ur (see above). The core of this structure is essentially solid, with only a small exception: in order to allow water to evaporate from the solid core, “weeper-holes” pierce the inward-sloping walls.3 These holes were lined with fired bricks, instead of the typical sun-dried bricks. Additionally, the outer layer of bricks for the ziggurat structure was comprised of these weather-resistant fired bricks, and these fired bricks were placed in waterproof bitumen. Additional measures were also taken to protect the entire structure from the elements: every few layers of bricks were covered with criss-crossed reeds and sandy soil, in order to prevent the ziggurat from drooping when the surrounding ground was flooded with silt from the Tigris and Euphrates.4

Detail of "weeper holes" at the Ziggurat of Ur. Other holes and damaged areas of the reconstructed ziggurat wall result, in part, from an attack on a nearby Iraqi air base in 1920s (see source).

Detail of “weeper holes” at the Ziggurat of Ur. Other holes and damaged areas of the reconstructed ziggurat wall result, in part, from an attack on a nearby Iraqi air base in 1920s (see HERE).

I knew that the Ziggurat of Ur was made of mudbrick, but I didn’t know how much detail went into the types of bricks that comprised the core and outer layer.5 With this new insight, I think I can better understand why the Ziggurat of Ur was called “Entemennigur,” which means, “House whose foundation creates terror.”

1 It is important to note that the second and third terraces were extensively restored by the Babylonian king Nabonidus (555-539 BC). Other rulers who preceded and followed Nabonidus, restored and/or altered this ziggurat as well (including Saddam Hussein). See Diana K. McDonald, 30 Masterpieces of the Ancient World (Chantilly, VA: The teaching Company, 2013), p. 40.

2 Ibid., p. 40.

3 Ibid., p. 41.

4 Martin Isler, Sticks, Stones, and Shadows: Building the Egyptian Pyramids (University of Oklahoma Press, 2001) p. 31. Available online HERE.

5 It is also interesting to me that the king Ur-Nammu considered other details in his construction of other buildings. A temple at Uruk included foundation figures, which were copper “pegs” that represented the ruler as a temple builder, holding a basket of earth to make bricks. One such foundation figure is in the collection of the British Museum.

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The “Nude” Doric Column

Left: Doric column from Temple of Athena at Paestum, Italy. Right: Metropolitan Kouros, c. 600 BCE

Left: Doric column from Temple of Athena at Paestum, Italy. Right: Metropolitan Kouros, c. 600 BCE

This week I am teaching my ancient art students about Greek art. On Monday we explored how kouroi from the Archaic period consisted of nude male figures (see example above), whereas female korai were always clothed. It wasn’t until the Late Classical period that the female nude became a traditional subject in Western art (perhaps forever more, for better or worse!).

Then, today, we explored Vitruvius’ discussion of the Doric and Ionic orders as being “gendered” (with the Doric order compared to a male and the Ionic order compared to a female). I pointed out that Vitruvius compared the fluted shaft of the Ionic column to the folds of a matronal garment, and then read this translation of De Architectura: “Thus two orders were invented, one of a masculine character, without ornament, the other bearing a character which resembled the delicacy, ornament, and proportion of a female” (Vitruvius, 4:1:7).

At that point, I had a student ask if the Doric order was supposed to be perceived as nude, since the Ionic order was described as clothed. Given our discussion of nude kouroi and and clothed korai earlier this week, I thought this was an excellent question. And it actually was easy to discover after class that my student made a correct observation! The original Latin text by Vitruvius contains a slightly different description than the English translation I have been using, describing the Doric order as “unam virili sine ornatu nuda specie” (a male, naked and unadorned; 4.1.17).

I feel like the inclusion of “nuda specie” really changes the way that one thinks of the Doric order, and I wish that this detail was stressed more in English translations of Vitruvius. I did find this English translation which includes the naked reference, and I think I will use this translation from hereon out.

So, if Doric columns are nude, do these columns stand as references to of heroism or warriors, similar to the nude kouroi? Perhaps. I found a book called The Lost Meaning of Classical Architecture by George L. Hersey which takes this idea of the “male” Doric columns further, arguing that the columns are representative of the Dorian invaders (nude warriors).1 He even finds that the entasis (slight swelling of the columns) perhaps suggestive of the straining of the human body.2 Although I’m not completely convinced that these Doric temples were supposed to be lined with the bodies of dynamic, straining warriors, it is an interesting and unique interpretation. What do others think?

Model of the Temple of Zeus at Agrigento, Sicily (original perhaps begun c. 480 BE, although still under remodel in 2nd century BC and never completed).

Model of the Temple of Zeus at Agrigento, Sicily (original perhaps begun c. 480 BE, although still under remodel in 2nd century BC and never completed).

Also, this topic has also gotten me to think about male and female architectural supports and ornaments, known respectively as atlantes (also called atlantids or telemons) and caryatids. It is interesting that the female caryatid figures are depicted as clothed (I am not aware of a single nude example), whereas the ancient male counterparts, the atlantes, are nude. Additionally, it appears that atlantes were used in a Doric context.3 The earliest example of atlantes figures appear at the Temple of Zeus at Agrigento, Sicily (shown in reconstruction above, and the remnants of one such atlantis can be seen HERE). Although these specific figures did not serve as columns but were placed between Doric columns, they appear to still have at least some load-bearing capacity and perhaps could have emphasized the perceived “nudity” of the Doric columns themselves.

1 George L. Hersey, The Lost Meaning of Classical Architecture: Speculations on Ornament from Vitruvius to Venturi (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988), p. 58. Available online HERE.

2 Ibid.

3 Dorothy King, “Vitruvius, Caryatids, and Telemones.” Available online HERE. An alternate version of this article appears in Dorothy King, “Figured supports: Vitruvius’ Caryatids and Atlantes,” Numismatica e Antichità Classiche, Quaderni Ticinesi, XXVII, 1998. Dorothy King writes that female caryatids could appear in a Doric context, although she may just be referring to a statue of Artemis on the Spartan agora. Typically, female caryatids were used in an Ionic context. Scholar Joseph Rykwert writes that apart from this Spartan example, there are no examples of Doric columns coupled with female figures. See Joseph Rykwert, The Dancing Column (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1998), p. 133. Available online HERE.

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Gothic Cathedral as Body and Mountain

Lincoln Cathedral interior, construction mostly 12th-14th centuries

This past week I read a really interesting article by Peter Fingesten: “Topographical and Anatomical Aspects of the Gothic Cathedral.”1 Fingesten feels like the form and design of Gothic cathedrals have allegorical and symbolic meaning. He compares the interior of cathedrals to the anatomy of the human body (in essence, as symbols of Christ and/or the Virgin Mary). He also compares the exterior of cathedrals to mountains, finding a link between Gothic cathedrals, the Heavenly Jerusalem, and the “sacred mountain imagery” that existed in ancient cultures. This imagery, according to Fingesten, is largely inspired by the John the Revelator’s visions of the Heavenly Jerusalem (Chapter 21 of the Book of Revelation). I thought I’d briefly mention a few of the main points here.

Pietro Cataneo, "Vitruvian Man" (1554)

Before reading this article, I already was familiar with how the floor plan of a basilica can mimic the form of the cross, or even the body of Christ. The allegorist William Durandus (also sometimes written Guillaume Durandi or William Durand) said as much in the 13th century. Fingesten asserts this point, and even references Vitruvius and the Renaissance artist Pietro Cataneo’s “Vitruvian Figure”(1554, see above), which is depicted within the basilica floor plan. But Fingesten takes things further: he discusses how the ribbed vaults of cathedrals mimic the spinal cord and ribs of a human figure. He believes that the Lincoln Cathedral interior (shown at the beginning of this post) is the best expression of this anatomical imagery. Fingesten also believes that the stained glass windows represent the translucent skin of the human body.

Using biblical references, Fingesten argues that the cathedral interior was originally intended to symbolize the body of Christ (who is recorded in the New Testament to have compared his own body to a temple). With the increase of devotion to the Virgin Mary in the twelfth century and afterward, the cathedral also came to symbolize her body. Mary’s body (and womb) traditionally have been compared to a “temple of God,” so I think that this later reinterpretation of the cathedral (really, a merger of male and female allegories) makes sense. I was especially intrigued by Fingesten’s descriptions about how “the pointed ribbed vault system suggests the rib-cage of a gigantic mother bending over her son” and how “cathedrals increased in size until they bulged like a woman high with child.”2

Salisbury Cathedral, England. Church building 1220-1258; west façade finished 1265; spire c. 1320-1330; cloister and chapter house 1263-1284

Fingesten also analyzes the exterior of cathedrals, finding that they symbolize the Heavenly Jerusalem, which is set upon Mount Zion. Fingesten thinks that this sacred mountain imagery is evoked in several ways. He finds that mountain peaks are referenced in the crossing tower and facade towers, while the spires allude to the summit.3 Nature is evoked in the exterior decoration through details and niches,  recalling the weather-beaten appearance of a mountain.4 Even the flying buttresses are used to extend this symbolism, Fingesten argues, and describes how they “hang precariously like snow bridges and drifts from the cliffs of the nave elevation.”5

It’s a really interesting and unique argument, I think. Fingesten delves into some textual references (beyond the Book of Revelation) to back up his argument. I’m not going to delve into those here, but you are welcome to read the argument on your own. My main concern is that Fingesten doesn’t convincingly have his own argument align well with what Durandus wrote in the 13th century. (For example, Durandus compared stained glass windows to the scriptures, not to translucent skin.) That being said, though, I think Fingesten’s interpretation of the cathedral is very impressionable. I know that I’ll think about rib-cages and mountains the next time I visit a Gothic cathedral.

1 Peter Fingesten, “Topographical and Anatomical Aspects of the Gothic Cathedral,” Journal of Aesthetics and Criticism 20, no. 1 (1963): 3-23.

2 Ibid., 18.

3 Ibid., 8.

4 Ibid., 10.

5 Ibid., 9.


Cathedral of Brasília as Postmodern

This past week I finished teaching a course on Brazilian Baroque art. On the last day of class, my students and I looked at examples of modern and contemporary Brazilian art. Taking many cues from Leopoldo Castedo’s book The Baroque Prevalence in Brazilian Art (1964), we discussed how Baroque stylistic characteristics can be observed in the Brazilian art that was produced in the 20th century.

Castedo’s book was written to highlight some of the continuities between Baroque stylistic characteristics and the modern architecture created in the new city of Brasília (the work of Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer). Castedo discusses this Baroque style as part of Brazil’s national identity. He asserts that the modernist architecture in Brasília is also inherently “Brazilian,” since he finds continuity between this 20th century style and that of the Baroque. Castedo’s Baroque (and therefore “Brazilian”) characteristics include a discussion of ideas such as audacity, intimacy, drama, and a tendency toward representing “the curve” in art.1

Oscar Niemeyer, Brasília Cathedral, 1962. Image courtesy Xdonat via Wikipedia.

One of the structures that my students and I discussed extensively was the Brasília Cathedral by Oscar Niemeyer (see above). This structure, along with many of the other major structures in Brasília, were built by Niemeyer. (There are some great video clips discussing the history of Brasília and some of the problems that arose by creating this modernist city from scratch. I highly recommend watching “Brasilia, Brazil: BBC World Wonders” and the Brasilia segment from “The Shock of the New” with Robert Hughes.)

It’s easy to see how this cathedral fits within the aims of the modernist architectural style that was popular in the mid-20th century. The lines of the architectural buttresses are clean and precise. The white color is visually-striking, yet also self-effacing. I think that the same can be said for the large windows which are placed in-between the buttresses: these windows are supposed to contribute to the self-effacing, neutral, and even “invisible” aspects of the structure.2

One of the things that I think is so interesting about this cathedral, though, is that the modernist aesthetic intended by Niemeyer has been completely altered. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising today, since we live in a postmodern world (which acknowledges context, surroundings, and place) instead of a modernist world (in which structures and works of art are self-contained). And the shift from a modern to a postmodern structure wasn’t too hard to do: the windows simply needed a little bit of color.

Oscar Niemeyer, Brasília Cathedral, 1962. Windows were painted in 1990 by Marianne Peretti.

So, that’s what happened. The windows of the cathedral were stained in 1990, which I think completely altered the “feel” and aesthetic of this structure. This building can no longer function as a neutral, modernist structure. The windows draw too much attention to the architecture (and even the architectural framework) of the structure to maintain the aesthetic that Niemeyer originally planned. Instead, I think that the colored windows have turned the interior of the building into a postmodern space. The lines and colors highlight the architecture and setting, so that the visitor is continually aware of his/her setting and context.

Do I think that the colored windows are a bad thing? No, not necessarily. I think the colors and designs are pretty. And, in many ways, I think that the stained glass windows are much more appropriate in today’s postmodern world. But I do think it’s interesting how the modernist aesthetic (and the original intention of the architect) was changed with just a little bit of color.

1 See Leopoldo Castedo, The Baroque Prevalence in Brazilian Art, (New York: Charles Frank Publications, 1964). For one discussion on the “love of the curve,” see p. 118.

2 This idea of “invisible” architecture as part of the modernist movement has been explored by scholars, including Panayotis Tournikiotis, who discussed how modernist “architecture is a synthesis of visual and invisible elements.” I think this idea is also easily explained with the “white cube” modernist gallery space, which is intended to be neutral and highlight the works on display (instead of drawing attention to the architecture and surroundings).


Ancient Greeks and Romans Broke their Pediments

Diagram of broken, segmental (rounded) and open pediments

Like other Baroque art historians, I love the broken pediment as an architectural feature. A broken pediment is  “broken” at the apex of a triangular pediment. I usually don’t differentiate between the “open” and “broken” pediment when I teach by students about these features, but I know that many architectural historians choose to differentiate between the two. An “open” pediment refers to when the base of the pediment has been removed (or “opened,”). One of my favorite broken pediments from the Baroque period (which actually has been broken, opened, and also shifted backward) is found in the Cornaro Chapel, designed by the artist Bernini (1645-1652).

Both open and broken pediments were popular in Baroque art. Baroque scholars love these kinds of pediments; they serve as good examples of how 17th century architects added a little bit more dynamism and movement into their architectural features (in contrast to the harmony and symmetry that characterized much of the architecture of the Renaissance).1

But I think that it’s hard for Baroque scholars to remember sometimes that the idea of segmenting pediments was not developed during the Baroque period. In fact, the broken and/or open pediment existed in ancient Rome and Hellenistic architecture from Alexandria.2 Unfortunately, not many extant examples of architecture survive from Alexandria, so scholars need to look to Roman and/or Nabatean art that copied Alexandrian architecture, such as the Market Gate of Miletus, Treasury at Petra, and Pompeiian wall paintings (all shown below).

I often teach my students about how the Greek Classical period is similar to the art of the Renaissance, and how the Hellenistic period is similar to the art of the Baroque period. The broken pediment in Hellenistic architecture is a further manifestation of this fact. It’s also interesting to see that the Romans picked up on this architectural feature that would probably have been conceived as “distorted” by Greeks who lived during what has been termed the “High Classical” period. In this light, the broken pediment is another manifestation of how Roman architecture was interested in the re-invention of Classical Greek architecture. No wonder they latched onto the Hellenistic invention of the broken pediment.

Here are some examples of broken pediments that appear in ancient Roman art:

Market Gate of Miletus, 2nd century CE. Currently located in the Pergamon Museum (Berlin). Image courtesy of Thorsten Hartmann via Wikipedia.

Facade Al-Khazneh (The Treasury), Petra, Jordan, 2nd century BC -2nd century CE. Image courtesy of Bernard Gagnon on Wikipedia.

Detail of second style wall paintin from cubiculum M of the Villa of Publius Fannius Synistor, Boscoreale, Italy, ca. 50-40 BCE

Arch of Tiberius, ca. 26 C.E. (rebuilt around core of earlier monument, ca. 30 B.C.E.), Orange, France

Broken pediment from Temple of Artemis, Jerash, Jordan, c. 150 CE. Image courtesy of Jerzy Strzelecki via Wikipedia.

What are your favorite examples of the broken (or open) pediment in architecture?

1 That being said, there are examples of the broken pediment that exist in Late Renaissance architecture. For example, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger employed broken pediments on the top story of the façade of the Palazzo Farnese (ca. 1530-1546).

2 See Judith McKenzie, “The Architecture of Alexandria and Egypt, 300 BC to AD 700, Volume 63″ (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 105. Source available online here. See also Judith McKenzie, “Alexandra and the Origins of Baroque Architecture,” available online here. The latter citation also includes a discussion of how the earliest surviving examples of the segmental pediment (a rounded, semi-circular pediment) are found in Alexandrian architecture.


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.