Category

Nabatean (Hellenistic)

Petra, the Siq, and the Hellenistic “Baroque” Style

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

My little sister recently returned from a study abroad in the Middle East during which she was able to visit, among other things, the ancient ruins at Petra in Jordan. I’m so glad that she got to visit this site; I hope to be able to go here myself one day. Although it is difficult to date the rock-cut tombs found at Petra, they are thought to have been made sometime between the 2nd century BC and the 2nd century CE, when the local group the Nabateans were at their wealthiest. Although some textbooks and scholars find that some of these rock-cut tombs (particularly the famous Al-Khazneh (“The Treasury,” shown above) and Al-Deir (“Monastery”)) are examples of Roman architecture, others feel that most of the buildings in Petra were built before the Roman annexation in 106 CE.

One of the things that I find most fascinating about the famous rock-cut tombs of Petra is the architectural style. Al-Khazneh and Al-Deir exhibit stylistic characteristics that harken back to Alexandrian architecture and the Hellenistic style. In other words, the architecture is very dramatic in its presentation, which has led some scholars to refer to the Hellenistic style as the “ancient Baroque.”1

This drama is especially apparent to me at Al-Khazneh due to the dynamic broken pediment, as well as the emphasis on movement. I see a lot of movement in the upper area of the facade, which contains a rhythm due to the pattern of projecting and recessing architectural segments. This movement is mimicked in the lower part of the façade, in which the frieze projects and recesses as it winds atop Corinthian columns. Additionally, the deep porch on the lower level creates an interesting contrast of light (hitting the Corinthian columns) and dark (shadow in the porch recess), which reminds me of the tenebrism found in Baroque art of the 17th century.

I was anxious to see my sister’s pictures of this building after her trip, and was surprised to discover another element that adds to the drama of this building: the surrounding landscape. Al-Khazneh and other rock-cut tombs are located next at the end of a natural winding rocky cleft called the Siq. When one approaches the structure by walking out of the Siq, there is not only a dramatic baroque element of light and dark contrast, but the theatricality of a natural curtain being unveiled from the façade itself. I think this is baroque presentation at its finest:

Partial view of façade Al-Khazneh (The Treasury) from the Siq (Canyon), Petra, Jordan, c. 2nd century BC - 2nd century CE.

Partial view of façade Al-Khazneh (The Treasury) from the Siq (Canyon), Petra, Jordan, c. 2nd century BC – 2nd century CE.

Given the theatricality of this style and its geographic location, it is no wonder that Steven Spielberg used Al-Khazneh as the location for the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade! I can also see why this dramatic building is associated with legends that pirate loot and pharaonic treasure were once held here (which accounts for the “Treasury” nickname for this building). To complete the dramatic effect, visible bullet holes can be seen on the exterior (shot by Bedouins at a stone urn (the “tholos”), in hopes of releasing the legendary stored treasure. Perhaps the bullet holes add a bit of visual “movement” and texture to the façade today as well!

1 Alina Payne, “Beyond Kunstwollen: Alois Riegl and the Baroque” in The Origins of Baroque Art in Rome by Andrew Hopkins and Arnold Witte, eds. (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2010), 8

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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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The Alexandrian Influence on Rome and Petra

It is generally accepted by scholars that the ancient Romans and the Nabataeans were independently influenced by Alexandrian architectural style. Some of these similar influences can be observed in Roman wall paintings and Nabataean architecture. On the left is a Second Style painting from the Cubiculum M. of the Villa of Public Fannius Synistor, originally located in Boscoreale (near Pompeii) and on the right is an image of the facade of Al-Khazneh, a famous monument in Petra, Jordan. One of the Alexandrian influences on both examples is the broken pediment (architectural feature designed as an incomplete triangle).

Both of these examples also include a circular (tholos) structure. These circular structures were common in ancient architecture (as seen in Delphi, Greece), but the tholoi in Petra are unique: they are narrowly proportioned and decorated with Corinthian columns. The most distinct feature of these tholoi is a tent-like roof that is decorated with another Corinthian capital and an urn. The only other tholoi with this same combination of Nabataean features are found in Second Style Roman paintings from Pompeii. It appears that Alexandria is the architectural source for this type of tholos, particularly because both the Nabataeans and Romans employ other elements of Alexandrian architecture (such as the aforementioned broken pediment).1

It is unlikely that Petra and Pompeii had any direct contact or artistic influence on each other. Instead, both ancient societies were independently influenced by the Alexandrian style. Isn’t that fascinating? Along these same lines, I recently found an interesting article that examines how Roman Third Style wall paintings include depictions of wind towers – triangular structures used on the roofs of Egyptian and Mesopotamian structures as a type of ventilation system.2 Neat-o.

1 For more information, see Judith McKenzie and Peter Roger Stuart Moorey, The Architecture of Alexandria and Egypt (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2007), 96-103.

2 Elfriede R. Knauer, “Wind Towers in Roman Wall Paintings?” Metropolitan Museum Journal 25 (1990): 5-20.
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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.