A Traditional Architecture Glossary

*This is an expanding glossary. If there is a term that you don't find here and feel should be included, please send suggestions to: patrick@realfinishes.com

Alphabetical Index

Image courtesy of Domiane Forte

The Latin term we use today really derives from the Greek karukeion (καρύκειον), meaning ‘herald’s staff’. You may recall it being held by the winged foot Hermes, Greek messenger of the gods. In the Olympic games the eternal flame is kept alive by the herald running with the caduceus, less the serpents and wings.

Of course the caduceus is also a symbol of medicine which may seem strange to us today. However, the association comes from ancient Egypt where before the general domestication of house cats, non-venomous snakes were maintained indoors to keep the rodent population in check and reduce pestilence.

‘Acanthus’, both the spinosus (thorny) and mollis (smooth), are herbaceous plants native to the shores of the Mediterranean. Their leaves are one of the most utilized for stylization of foliage in Classical Architecture.

For the ancient Greeks the acanthus came to symbolize death, re-birth, immortality. The first know use of the Corinthian column, prominently featuring the acanthus leaf in its capital, was at the Temple of Apollo Epicurius in Arcadia, circa 450 B.C.E.


The plain Jane, country cousin of the pineapple or pinecone. The poor dear lacks sophistication and enrichment and as a result doesn't often get invited to the party...always stuck sitting on the gate post.


The Greeks utilized the word "akros" (ἄκρος), meaning "highest or at the extremity" to refer to the small pedestal upon which sculpted figures of ornament were placed upon the apex and corners of the roof.  Since that time the meaning has been extended to included the ornament itself even without the pedestal as in this example.


‘Aedicule’ literally means ‘little house’ in Latin. It does in fact have the appearance of a miniature temple front, having a small pediment surmounting two pilasters resting on a sill or pedestal.

Often this design is used to give prominence to door entries or as a surround to enrich window openings. Also, it may have a niche that is filled with statuary as depicted here at Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico.


A sculpted ornamental skull or more often head of a ram often utilized with the Corinthian and Composite orders. This exquisite example I chanced upon in downtown Charleston.

‘Aisle’ derives from the Latin ‘ala’ meaning ‘wing’. A basilica will often have one or usually two halls running parallel to the nave, the central body of the building. The aisle ceilings are typically lower than the nave. 



A series of large piers form an arcade to separate the aisles from the nave. 16th century engraver, Albrecht Dürer, made some keen observations of the designs of early Romanesque compound piers as well as their evolution manifest in Gothic clustered columns.Wells Cathedral provides a beautiful example of the unification of the compound piers with the arches and the ribs descending from the vaults above by incorporating aligned colonettes. Although the thrust is obviously downward, the feeling conveyed is vertical and upward as if the arches and ribs ‘spring’ from the capitals of the colonettes.


The angular Ionic capital is a variation having all sides identical, manifesting volutes. It is particularly useful for resolving the aesthetic of outside corner conditions. 

Taken from Roman precedent, Vincenzo Scamozzi successfully canonized the angular capital in his 1615 architectural treatise L’Idea della Architettura Universale.

Plural of ANTA, antae are engaged piers that terminate either side of a colonnade. Antae do not have entasis or diminution and typically have a unique capital not associated with the main order.  

Meaning “between the antae”. In temple architecture they occasionally are used to terminate the portico, framing the entry.

Image courtesy of Palladio Mouldings

The Greek ‘anthemion’ (ανθέμιον) meaning ‘flower’ or ‘blossom’ had been an extensively used motif inherited from the Ancient Egyptians, subsequently embraced by the Romans.The anthemion or palmette was a prominent spiritual symbol of life and renewal often adorning mausoleums and sarcophagi.

The ‘apse’ is the terminating space beyond the nave at the east end of the basilica. The word derives from Ancient Greek ‘hapsis’ (ἁψίς) meaning arch or vault. It does in fact take the form of a polygonal or a semicircular space covered with a vault or half dome respectively.

The half domes of medieval apses often contained beautiful mosaics, gilding and frescoes. We just recently concluded our annual ‘Spoleto’ festival here in Charleston so I thought it might be nice to show off the beautiful apse from our sister city’s duomo in Spoleto, Umbria.


A series of counter-thrusting arches raised on columns or piers that support an entablature and often a projecting roof. 'Arcade' has also come to mean the space the projected roof encloses, a covered walkway.


The term ‘architrave’ has a divided heritage. The prefix, ‘archi-’ indicates that what follows is of great importance. A Greek leader was titled an ‘archon’ (ἄρχων) to denote his primary status.

‘Trabem’ on the other hand was the Latin word for ‘beam or timber’. Thus an ‘architrave’ is the great beam resting atop the columns and the primary support for the roof above. 


‘Atlas’ was the Greek Titan who had to hold up the sky as punishment from Zeus. ‘Atlante’ was the Titan’s Roman name whereas ‘Telamon’ was a companion of Jason from the legend of the Argonauts.

These titles are used interchangeably for the strained male figures that hold up the weight of a building in the place of columns or corbels.

Possibly the most utilized base in Classical Architecture, the ‘Attic Base’ consist of two ‘Tori’ (semi circular profiles) separated by a ‘Scotia’ (concave profile) and fillets, usually resting atop a ‘plinth’.

‘Attic’ comes from the Greek ‘Attikos’ (Ἀττικός) literally meaning of Athens or Athenian, speaking to the supposed origin of this base design.

Like our previous example of the Attic base, the ‘Attic’ description is a 17th century reference to Athens, specifically the ‘Attica’ style pilasters that were widely used at that time. 

Practically, the Attic Storey consists of the rectangular closed space resting above the main entablature prominently featured in Roman triumphal arches and later incorporated into Renaissance façades.


A doorway having the jamb inclined inwards from the threshold to the top. A common feature of Mycenaean, Incan and Roman architecture, it made its way back prominently into classical architecture as an Egyptian Revival style.


Image courtesy of Plâtres Vieujot
The general form of the baluster has always been used in architecture. We have many examples of ornate candelabras from Roman times exhibiting this form. However, the Romans typically used ‘transennae’ for parapets and banisters, the balustrade really an invention of the Renaissance. 
The origin of the term goes first back to the Greek ‘balaustion’ (βαλαύστιον) then further back in antiquity of ancient Semitic origins and is a reference to the bulbous flower of the pomegranate flower.   


In a traditional timber frame building an oft elaborately carved and ornamented fascia board that hangs down from the projecting gable so as to mask and protect the otherwise exposed purlins supporting the roof. 


The projecting turrets of a fortification placed at the corners and near entrances, with machiolations and meurtrières for defensive purposes.  

The Latin ‘Basilica’ originally derived from the Greek (βασιλική) meaning ‘kingly’ or ‘royal’. The Roman Basilica was a public meeting place where business matters could be conducted and sometimes settled by a sitting magistrate, representing the power of the Roman state.
By the 4th century basilicas were being constructed for the church. Over the next few posts we’ll take a look at architectural features typical of basilica architecture.


A parapet featuring MERLONS, upright defensive extensions of a fortification alternated with lower, open intervals called CRENELS. Such a parapet or battlement is said to be 'Crenelated'.


Coming directly from the Italian 'bel' meaning 'beautiful' and 'vedere' meaning 'to see', the belvedere is typically a rooftop pavilion offering a lovely vista. This church has two...the view must be twice as nice.


The roll resembling a cushion that connects the front and rear volutes of an Ionic capital. The Romans used the term "Pulvinus" because of the resemblance to the swelling of the stem at the base of a leaf.  The detailed hand tooling on this limestone example is quite amazing. 30 feet below the texture it creates with the refraction of light endows the work with depth and life.

Image courtesy of Palladio Mouldings


A projecting supporting member. Depending on the style and how it is used there are various designations. Modillions and Corbels, like the one depicted in the photo, are characterized by an S-curve whereas other brackets such as the Mutule from the Doric order are angular. 

Sounds so exotic, right? Well it’s just what it looks like. In ancient Greece they called it ‘bous’ (βοῦς) meaning ‘ox’, ‘kranion’ (κρανίον) meaning ‘skull’. Yep, just plain old ox-skulls.

The reason this became an important motif for the Greeks in temple architecture stems from religious ceremonies that included sacrifices of oxen to the gods. Early on they used to actually mount the sacrificial skulls but eventually the stylization of the ‘bucranium’ was carved in relief directly into the frieze of the temple.


With the introduction of radial arches, vaults and domes came the structural necessity for buttresses, attached supportive masses built along the lines of introduced lateral thrust through which the load is transferred to the ground.


Literally meaning the "glass room", the term implies a vaulting of plated glass. The Cour Vitrée of the Palais des Études, École des Beaux-Arts in Paris provides an exceptional example of the delicacy and sophistication typical of the 19th century use of glass and steel.

A capital is the uppermost termination or 'head' of a column. Unsurprisingly, our English word “capital” directly derives from the Latin ‘caput’ simply meaning ‘head’. 

Many of our apparently abstract architectural terms in English are anglicized French, Latin and Greek words. So many of these terms are nothing more than everyday words used as a metaphor for what an architectural element visually resembles or what function it holds.

This term comes directly to us from French where the design has figured prominently in French architecture since the Renaissance. The term is derived from the Greek term for papyrus, ‘khartēs’ (χάρτης) from which we also receive the English word ‘chart’ with the original sense of a ‘map’. 

A cartouche does in fact resemble a stretched, convex sheet of paper surrounded by scrolling ornamentation and is often prominently featured on historic architectural drawings, maps and globes.

Image courtesy of Plâtres Vieujot


Latin for the "Castle of Grief", a memorial structure raised to offer a measure of protection from the elements of the CATAFALQUE or raised bier of the deceased.


The particularly enriched frame enclosing a door, window or fireplace. The horizontal top piece or lintel is called the TRANSVERSE whilst the vertical supporting members are called the MONTANTS or ASCENDANTS.

The east end of an abbey or cathedral distinguished by radiating chapels protruding from the apse.


A V-shaped stripe of ornamentation forming a zig-zag pattern, the best examples of which were employed during the Norman period, the name for Romanesque architecture of 11th and 12th century England.


This is just a delicious bit of ornamental carving I had to find a way to squeeze in!  The Chimera originates in Greek mythology, the monster having the heads of a lion and he-goat and the tail of a serpent. It has come to denote any unnatural assemblage of animal forms into a single, fantastical creature..


The clerestory is a raised level above the nave, supported by the arcade pierced with windows to bring light and occasionally ventilation into the body of the building.

In some cathedrals there is an additional mezzanine level of arcaded galleries fixed above the principal arcade and under the clerestory called a ‘triforium’, literally meaning ‘three gates’ but having a meaning of ‘thoroughfare’ or ‘passageway’.

I find the elevation at Lichfield Cathedral particularly well designed. There are cinquefoils in the spandrels of the arcade, quatrefoils and trefoils in the traceries of the triforium openings and clerestory windows respectively.

This term used to described a deeply sunken ceiling panel has its origin in an everyday item it resembles. The ancient Greek word ‘kophinos’ (κόφινος) refers to a common basket. 
Notice the stylized flowers filling the ‘baskets’ of this coffered dome.

A thin, decorative column having a cylindrical shaft. 


Whereas ‘style’ is of Greek origin, ‘column’ comes from the Latin ‘columna’ having a similar meaning of ‘pillar’. The fluting of these columns from the Pantheon are a little different from the ones we discussed yesterday.

When two curved surfaces intersect to form a sharp edge the ridge formed is described as an ‘arris’. This term has its origin in the Latin ‘arista’ meaning ‘fishbone’. 

‘Canalis’ , also Latin, originates from the ancient Greek ‘kanna’ (κάννα) meaning ‘reed’ or ‘cane’. It is the same root for words such as ‘channel’ and ‘canal’. The vertical grooves of the Greek Doric are distinguished by an elliptical radius.


Repetition with variation. This echo in the parts of what manifests in the whole or climax is well exemplified in the minor domes of Santa Maria del Fiore which prepare the viewer for Brunelleschi's great dome that would otherwise overwhelm the composition. 


The most lavish, beautiful and the last of the 'Orders' developed by the Greeks in the 5th century B.C.E. It can typically be identified by its capital which often has a height greater than the diametre of the shaft and is highly enriched.


Thrusting up from the acanthus leaves and spiraling underneath the abacus are typically 16 or 8 as in this example “helices”, delicate volutes, much more diminutive then those of the Ionic order.


The regularly spaced buds or bunched foliage along the arrises of a Gothic pinnacle or gable. The blossoming crown terminating the peak is called a cropse.


The horizontal projection of a voussoir that rests upon an adjacent stone. 


Typically, a pointed pendant ornament serving to corbel and terminate a projecting feature such as an arch, oriel, turret etc. However, they lend themselves to thematic expression as has this example of a reclined minstrel.



Image courtesy of Palladio Mouldings

Could you guess that these rectangular ornaments come from the Latin term for tooth, ‘denticulus’? When dentils are a feature of a cornice the entablature is said to be ‘denticulated’. 

Traditionally dentils have a height twice their width and are separated by a distance two thirds their width. A theory of their origin is that they represent the cantilevered ends of beams used to support a projecting upper storey.


A large semi-circular window typically divided by two mullions or alternatively four mullions into an odd number of compartments. The core of the Thermae commissioned by the Roman Emperor Diocletian is largely preserved, windows included, within the Basilica Santa Maria degli Angeli.



For the Greeks ‘doma’ (δωμα) simply meant a domestic ‘house’. However, with the spread of Christianity basilicas with a resident bishop came to known as the Lord’s house, abbreviated to ‘duomo’ in the vernacular Italian. Sometime in the 17th century, the English modified ‘duomo’ to describe the CUPOLA crowning many of these prominent Italian basilicas.

The ‘Doric’ order is the primary and oldest of the 3 principal orders of classical architecture. Its name derives from the Dorians (Δωριεῖς , Greek), northern invaders who occupied the Peloponnese peninsula.
It is characterized by its typically unornamented, geometric capital as well as its frieze with tryglyphs, metopes, guttae etc. that we will consider individually in upcoming posts.


A small window or louver projecting from a sloping roof surmounted by its own gable. The vertical sides of the dormer are called 'cheeks'.

The etymology comes directly from the French 'dormir', to sleep. So it was thought of as the window of a sleeping room, since the attic spaces of houses were typically bedrooms.


A Chinese tradition of timber framing, consisting of a complex system of interlocking, corbeled joined bracketing allowing the rafters and eaves to be cantilevered well beyond the supporting columns.

Image courtesy of Gary Callahan


Carved into the ovolo (half round) profile of stone or wood or cast in plaster or metal, the iconic egg & dart mould enrichment alternates the feminine symbol of fertility, the egg with the male symbol of virility, the dart.


French for "to thread" (as in a needle), architecturally it refers to a suite of rooms directly connected, the doors aligned along a common axis. Frequently employed in palace architecture of the Baroque period, guests would be escorted to the farthest room their rank would permit.


An engaged column has at least half to three quarters of its shaft exposed. It maintains the entasis or diminution of a free standing column and likewise performs a functional role of support of the entablature.



Embellishment with ornament, well...just because.


In Classical architecture the ‘entablature’ is the superstructure resting atop piers or columns that consists of, from bottom to top, the architrave, frieze and cornice. The name derives from the Latin ‘intavolare’ meaning to place on a table.


The term ‘escutcheon’ came into use as an English heraldry term from the Latin ‘scutum’ meaning ‘shield’. Often you will encounter a highly ornamented escutcheon resting above the entry of a family estate proudly displaying the family’s coat of arms.

A less glamorous use of the term is for the protective cover plate surrounding a door knob that has a shield-like appearance.

Sketch in charcoal by Steve Shriver
design provided by Domiane Forte

‘Esquisse’ is the French term for ‘sketch’. The formal ‘esquisse’ was a skill honed to perfection by the French at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts during the 19th century.
Architects and artisans today can benefit themselves immensely by always having paper and a drawing medium on hand for observational field drawing, a quick shadow study or to flesh out a design idea. 


The convex visible outer face of an arch or vault. This well preserved bath complex by the Romans in Leptis Magna display extraordinary examples of visible extrados including a hemispherical dome, barrel, groin and segmental vaults.


The exterior face, the architectural front of a building. Sometimes, as is the case with the tombs at Petra carved out of the living rock that is all there is, nothing more than a façade...and sometimes that is enough... 


The semi-circular, sometimes semi-elliptical window above a doorway characterized by radiating muntins.     If you look carefully, this recognizable example quite literally, if subtlety stylizes the rays of the sun. ...  


Of singularly English origin, fan vaulting in stone is a development of the third and last period of Gothic architecture, the Perpendicular. The earliest extant example may be found in Gloucester Cathedral, circa 1351.

It would later be emulated in Gothic Revival architecture as a purely decorative ‘fan tracery’ of ceilings in plaster. The 1852 renovation of the ceiling of the Unitarian Church in Charleston, South Carolina is a great American example.


The cartouche/escutcheon is the crowning centrepiece of the main stairwell of the Vanderbilt estate in Newport. The stairwell itself is a focal point of the main room and its every detail symbolically conveyed the power of the family. Notice how the scroll of the cartouche resolves itself into a menacing lion's roar, powerful imagery!

However, I'd like to draw attention to the band of oak leaves running just above. This motif called a 'fasces', Latin for 'bundle' that has its origin in the Etruscan civilization and was adopted by the Romans. PER UNITATEM VIS or 'strength in unity' was represented by a bundle of rods held together by leather bindings. The implication was that though a single rod may be easily snapped a bundle was almost impossible to break. Here rods are replaced by the leaved branches of the Vanderbilt family symbol, the mighty oak, itself further transmitting the underlying message of power.

In Roman times a literal fasces had an axe head incorporated into the binding and was present as a symbol of the power of the Roman magistrate. The rods and leather symbolized his power to mete out corporal punishment whereas the axe represented his power of life and death. This symbolism was adopted by the 'Fascist' regime of Mussolini and likewise has been used extensively as emblems of the US government and military.

Out of the three I would venture that ‘festoon’ is the more serious, architectural term. All three can refer to an ornamental representation of bunched, hanging leaves sometimes with fruits and flowers. If just fabric is depicted, ‘swag’ is the appropriate term.


Flame On! 

The Flamboyant (French for "flaming") later period of predominantly French Gothic architecture characterized by flowing, ogee window traceries resembling flickering flames


You might recognize the similarity of 'Fleuron' to the French word for 'flower', 'fleur'. In fact, 'Fleuron' is the Old French augmentative form of flower. Often you'll find a fleuron crowning each of the four pairs of inner helices of the Corinthian capital such as this one at the Getty museum which has a really over-sized version.

If you are going to draw that much attention to yourself, you should be worth the spectacle. Fortunately, this one is quite beautiful. 


Overlapping rings are a common feature of Gothic architecture. The open areas are referred to as ‘foils’, from the Latin word for leaf, ‘folium’. 
The Ducal Palace in Venice prominently uses a quatrefoil, four leaf design.


The vertical, enclosed area at the end of a sloping roof, defined by raking cornices running up from the eaves to the ridge. It is often triangular resembling the formal, classical pediment.



Think "Gemini" or "twins", geminated columns are coupled. A frequent and enjoyable approach of support employed in cloistered Romanesque colonnades.


This is a particular form of the architrave or frame surrounding a door, rusticated with large blocks and surmounted by a keystone. Although this particular treatment has existed for millennia, it was popularized through distribution of a pattern book by 18th century English architect James Gibbs, hence the name.


Gorgons were seen as simultaneously endowed with beauty and terror, the writhing snakes of their hair, a symbol of fertility and a talisman against evil influences.

The name of the iconic gorgon, "Medusa" literally means "protector". The head of the Medusa was utilized as a symbol of royal "aegis", shield or protection.


The intersection of two simple or ‘barrel’ vaults create arrises that indicate the lines of thrust are directed toward the terminating imposts. This allows the support to be concentrated on piers instead of along a supporting wall, an advantage utilized extensively in Gothic and Renaissance architecture.

Image courtesy of Plâtres Vieujot



Fantastical morphings of human, animal and vegetal forms were typical Roman crypt decor. "Grottesca" is Italian, meaning "of the grotto" which derives from old Vulgar Latin "grupta" from the Classical Latin "crypta". Surprising to know our use of the English "crypt" is closest to the original Latin pronunciation!


Spanish architect Rafael Guastavino made popular a Mediterranean system of vaulting with interlocking clay tiles laid out in the form of an inverted catenary profile. It was introduced to the United States during the late 19th thru earlier 20th century and can be seen in many public landmarks such as Grand Central Station, NY.

The tradition continues in France under the name ‘le voute Sarrazine’, utilized to create delicate helix shaped staircases. A traditional gypsum plaster is used as mortar.



The linear pattern of two or more interlacing bands that create a series of circular openings. A prominent feature of COSMATESQUE work, an intricate style of marble, glass and stone inlay dominated by the Cosmati family of 12th and 13th century Italy.


The "guttae" is Latin for "drops" or "tears". They are the small conical, peg-like elements beneath the tryglph specific to the Doric entablature.  The narrow plate the guttae are driven through is called the REGULA.


A building exposing its timber frame as the principal means of structural support with masonry & plaster or wattle & daub infill. In long lasting examples the ground floor was composed of masonry construction so as to provide a suitable water table and the timber framing began on the first floor, hence the description "half" timbering.


A semicircular alcove recessed into the wall of a room or more typically an outdoor wall, of sufficient size to provide seating for several persons. The Romans were fond of this design for sheltered rest areas both in town and garden.  



A hemicyclium is one form of an ancient sundial in the form of a concave quarter sphere or more accurately conic section.  The shadow casting rod or "gnomon" is oriented so that it points north and is parallel to the rotation axis of the Earth, marking the surface of the hemicyclium. 


As "trachelion" is Greek for "necking". The "hypo-" prefix means "under" so that the "hypotrachelion" indicates an element under the necking band.  In contrast to the Romans who would typically form an astragal or bead profile as a binding element between the capital and shaft below, the Greeks preferred to incise a deep groove, the hypotrachelion as a dividing element..  


The weather tight, overlapping of shingles or tiles having the joint perpendicular to the lap. Alternatively, it can be a treatment resembling such a pattern often featuring stylized forms of overlapping leaves, feathers, scales etc.


The ‘impost’ is the point at which the vertical thrust of an arch or vault is ‘imposed’ (Latin, impositus) upon an architectural member.

In one of my favourite examples of so many architectural details, the Villa Madama, we see the capitals of the ‘piers’ receiving the thrust of the arches and the cornice of the entablature to the left serving as an extended impost for the barrel vault. 


A series of arches resting on the same plane but that visually appear to overlap. 


A series of intersecting arches, crossing on the same plane, resting on alternating column supports. Both interlacing and intersecting arches are a common decorative feature of Norman Romanesque architecture.


The precise term for the concave inner face of an arch or vault.

Rendering by Steve Shriver
Characterized by the large,  sprial volutes this style became fully developed in Greek Ionia, modern day Turkey. In Greek mythology, Ion was the progeny of Apollo and often temples prominently featuring Ionic designs were dedicated to him. However, the origins of the Ionic go back further east to Mesopotamia, Persia and the Indus Valley. For example, the Torah indicates that Noah’s grandson, ‘Javan’ (the Hebrew variant of Ion), was the forefather of the Greek people.


This is the stone that lies at the apex of a masonry arch. It must be angled, wedge shaped to receive the opposing stresses for the arch not to collapse.     As this is a natural focal point such as for the arched entrance to a building the keystone is often beautifully decorated with a motif that carries meaning for the owner or institution.


A narrow pointed arch typically utilized for open, blind or glazed windows. The lancet can be arranged in an infinite possibility of widths that facilitates a rhythmic composition.


A large stone basin with orifices of flowing water traditionally used in ablutions, ritual washings of purification.

This example from the Abbey of Valmagne, Languedoc provides such a peaceful setting for inner reflection.

The program of study typically associated with this degree in contemporary education changed considerably in the 20th century. Unfortunately, in many institutions it has devolved into a free (undisciplined) journey of self-directed, exploratory study that eschews linguistics and math.    

The classical liberal arts program of study was quite the opposite. The ‘liberal’ arts were considered the minimal requisite skills for a ‘free’ person or citizen to be a productive member of society and carry out his civic duties. The church organized the study in medieval times into two areas of study:

The Trivium having a focus on language and thought prepared one for the more advanced study of the Quadrivium, devotes to mathematical concepts. With this foundational education one was considered prepared for further specialized study in music, architecture, art etc.


The ‘lintel’ is the beam above the door, window or other opening that supports the wall above.By contrast, the ‘sill’ is a beam placed at the bottom of the window whose principal purpose is to direct water away from the opening.


A colonnaded or arcaded gallery attached to a larger structure that is roofed and open to the exterior on at least one side.

Taking the sketch or ‘esquisse’ concept a bit further is the ‘maquette’ or model. This was customarily taught at the École des Beaux-Arts as a method for architects and artisans to develop a design for presentation and work out design problems in advance.

Typically, plaster would be the medium for realizing a maquette.

Triumphal Arch of Augustus Aosta
maquette from the historic plaster cast collection
Institute of Classical Architecture & Art


The representation of a human or at least partially human face, often caricatured or grotesque. Historically utilized as a means of warding away evil spirits, ‘mascarons’ or ‘masks’ represent some of the most delightful, personal and playful expressions of ornamentation.

‘Mashrabiya’ can refer to a geometrically ornamented window screen of traditional Islamic architecture or the entire oriel window balcony that contain such screens. Mashrabiyas allows for the passage of air and light while providing a level of privacy. 

Image courtesy of Plâtres Vieujot


In the Doric architectural order, the ‘metope’ are the square spaces situated between the triglyphs. The Greeks typically would fill them with sculptural representations of emblems of sacrifice in their temple architecture. The Romans continued this tradition and also would use them for displaying trophies or simple decoration in buildings of the state. 

The term is of ancient Greek origin literally meaning the ‘hole’, ‘opē’ (ὀπή) that is ‘above or beyond’, ‘meta’ (μετά), meaning above the architrave.

In the Renaissance example of the Tempietto, we see that various items of the Catholic sacrament have replaced the pagan Greek emblems


A circular portal, typically leading to a garden courtyard in traditional Chinese architecture.


Prominently employed though not exclusive to Islamic architecture, an arch featuring a curve that continues slightly past its diametre, resulting in the opening below being narrower than its greatest span.  I quite like the scalloped treatment of the upper storey arches in this exemplary Charleston  


Primarily applied to windows but also terminology applicable to doors and portals. The MULLION forms the primary vertical divisions and support for the opening whereas the TRANSOM provides the secondary horizontal structural support and is also a term used for the bar separating a door below from a window above.  

The MUNTINS are smaller members that secure the individual lights or panes of glass and may have any orientation.   

"Rycharde Dale carpeder made thies windovs by the grac of God"  Awesome quote!!  


Highly detailed, corbeled arches or vaults unique to Islamic architecture.

The appearance is intentionally designed to stylize stalactites in symbolism of Muhammad having received his revelation from Allah, by means of the angel Gabriel in the Cave of Hira outside of Mecca.


‘Mutules’ are a specific species of bracket typical of the Doric architectural order, speculated to be representative of rafter tails from an earlier timber architecture. They are characterized by guttae along their bottom face and are aligned above the trigylphs.


When the metopes of the frieze are filled with animal sculpture relief, the frieze can alternatively be called a ‘zoophorous’ literally meaning ‘supporting an animal’ in ancient Greek.

Placed at the western end of the basilica, the ‘narthex’ is a vestibule screened or walled off from the nave. A covered exterior portico might be considered an exonarthex. Historically, in church architecture the narthex was considered a public receiving area whilst the nave was reserved for baptized members of the congregation.


The central body of the basilica, having the highest elevation located just West of the apse. In a church it is usually partially filled with seating for the congregation. 

The word ‘nave’ derives from the Latin ‘navis’ meaning ‘ship’ as it was felt the vaulting above somewhat resembled the keel of a ship. I particularly like the labyrinth in the nave of Chartres cathedral. It may not add much architecturally; nevertheless everyone, especially children are drawn to the maze, very interactive! 


The post at the head, foot or landing of a stair to which the handrail is attached and supported. When there exists immaculate taste and a love of craftsmanship they can get quite elaborate.


In timber frame construction Noggin or Dwang refers to the horizontal bracing pieces rebated between the vertical wall studs.   Noggin can also refer to the brick masonry infill between timbers, occasionally left exposed, more often parged (stuccoed). 


‘Oculus’ is Latin for ‘eye’ and refers prominently to the circular opening at the top of a dome. However, oculus is also used to describe the ‘eye’ of a volute and a round or elliptical window opening.


Oculus windows came in vogue in the French Baroque and can be found on iconic structures such as Versailles and the Louvre. ‘Œil de Boeuf’ means ‘bull’s-eye’.

A compound curve combining a concave and convex curve in a continuous line, otherwise referred to as an S-curve. They are often used to form moulding profiles, arches, roofs or a tracery as in this handsome circa 1923 Gothic Revival example I saw recently at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, CA. 


The diagonal ribs of a Gothic vault.


A dome of ogee profile in section that turns back upon itself on the bottom, thus giving a bulbous character to the dome which terminates at a point. Ubiquitously associated with the Russian Orthodox church such domes can also be found in Mughal and Islamic architecture.


A bay window or, as in this example, a turret that is corbeled and projecting from the main structure. Its of old French origin thought to derive from the medieval Latin "oriolum" meaning porch, gallery. 


A column capital crowned with the stylized spreading leaves of the palm tree. This ancient example from the temple of Horus at Edfu casts some dramatic shadows under the


The French word for 'plume', panache came to be used for flamboyance and reckless courage, manifested in architecture as the highly decorated triangular surface of a pendentive.     Simona Albanese captured this amazingly detailed photo at the basilica Sant'Andrea della Valle when it was under renovation. 


A low guard wall or screened railing at the edge of a roof or terrace. 


From the Italian “piedistallo”, literally the ‘foot of the style or column', a pedestal is a base support for columns, pilasters, monuments and the like.

The order of the pedestal typically consists of a cornice, crowning a dado (often paneled body), supported by a base and plinth.

The pediment is typically the dominant feature of a façade surmounting a row of columns or crowning a door or window.

Although there are many variations the oldest and most common shape forms a triangular gable. The name 'pediment' is thought to be a mispronunciation of 'periment', itself an alteration of the Egyptian 'pyramid' whose shape it resembles. 


When an arch or barrel vault intersects a dome there remains curved, triangular surfaces that transfer the weight of a dome unto piers below.

The term ‘pendentive’ derives from the Latin ‘pendere’ meaning ‘to hang’ and from which we have words with an associated meaning like ‘pending’ or ‘pendant’. Pendentives are characterized by a delicate, graceful form that visually appears to be hanging from the dome above.


Image courtesy of Vicat


In Italy it refers to a public space enclosed or nearly enclosed by buildings. We inherited the equivalent "place" from the French. Somehow it doesn't sound nearly as exotic.  As a child I always thought it amazing you could get a pizza in the piazza. 

PIAZZA (Charleston)

Pronounced Pee-OZ-ah locally, the side portico is a distinctly Charlestonian feature. Typically running the side length of the home with multiple doors opening to the interior, the open air porch takes advantage of the cooler breezes coming off the water in an effective attempt to beat the summer heat.

I like to think of them as the private country clubs of the landed gentry, a comfortable place for Charleston high society to mingle and philosophize over a chilled drink.


Pilasters resemble rectangular columns but being in low relief (commonly one fifth projection) are strictly decorative applications providing no structural support of the entablature above.

Pilasters typically do not have entasis or diminution yet otherwise conform to the details of the main order.

The stylized forms of the pinecone or pineapple oft serve as decorative finials adorning gate-piers and are a symbol of hospitality. This lichen covered one looks ripe enough to eat!


In Gothic architecture, pinnacles occur as groups of shafts at or above the roof line most often terminated with a pyramid, frequently but not universally enriched.


The dressing of masonry where all of the arrises or edges are in the same plane whilst the facing if left rough, simply dressed with a pitching chisel. 


An early Gothic adaptation for rose windows, plate tracery gives the appearance of perforations through a thin stone slab in an otherwise solid wall.   The West front of Chartres Cathedral provides an amazing example, exceeding 12 metres across.


The raised platform on which a classical building occasionally rests. The term comes from the Greek 'πόδι' or 'podia', meaning 'foot' (think podia-try). The Romans in particular favoured podiums, which can often serve as a basement storey.


A colonnaded, sheltered porch that is detached from the main façade.  The portico often provides the first gesture of hospitality as well as transition from the public life of the street to the most intimate spaces of the home.


Of French origin, Portcullis quite literally means the "sliding door" referencing the defensive grating of iron and heavy timber lowered between the grooved jambs of a stone opening.   


Machicolation means the "breaking of the neck" describing the floor openings or "murder holes" between corbeled overhangs through which rocks, hot oil and all manner of nasty things might be dropped upon a besieging force.   


"The Murderess". A slender opening that allowed for the launch of projectiles with the least exposure, the most common form being an arrowslit. the   


The bulging out or pillowing ("pulvinus" is literally the Latin word for "cushion") of a moulding element, most commonly the frieze band of the Ionic order specifically referred to as a "pulvinated frieze".


Latin for "little boys" or "children", the Putti were revived as a theme from antiquity and fattened up during the Renaissance. Despite a frequent effort to Christianize Putti as winged Cherubim, this only served to closely associate them with the pagan Roman god of desire CUPID.


The Greek word for gateway that we apply almost exclusively to the massive, slanted entrance portal to ancient Egyptian temple complexes. Note how each one of those column capitals to the right are unique.

A chariot drawn by four horses, typically driven by a one of the goddesses such as Victory, Peace, Triumph or Fame. Very often a quadriga will be found surmounted upon a standing triumphal arch or an arch incorporated into a façade. 


In a classical liberal arts program these are the "four paths" of the higher mathematical studies and search for truth.     

In our modern, hyper-rational educational system a disproportionate emphasis is placed on the purely conceptual approach to number, the least instinctive and humanistic of the four and why most students dread math in my opinion (Polynomial long division anyone?)     

ARITHMETIC - the all to familiar number in concept     

GEOMETRY - number in space    

HARMONY - number in time or sequence     

COSMOLOGY - the dynamic study of number in time and space 


We’ve adopted the French word for ‘corner’ to describe the external angles in architecture typically emphasized by rustication in stone or stucco. 


An arch formed along an inclined plane where one impost sits higher than another. The rampant vault would include the ceiling thus formed. 


A defensive wall of earth, stone or combination thereof. Originally dating to the 17th century, parts of the Quebec City rampart, particularly the gates have been rebuilt more than once. It is the only remaining walled city in North America.  

Of ancient Persian origin, they were adopted by the Greeks, Romans and have since been a regular feature of Western garden design. Effective designs are constructed in a way to suppress wave movement and of course have something lovely to reflect.


An Arabic word for "garden", the Riad has come to describe an urban villa prominently featuring an interior, open courtyard with a pool or fountain and often mosaic floors. This Domus Italica tradition was established in North Africa during the days of Imperial Rome.   The inward facing design features thick adobe walls with little to no outside windows. Private rooms open off of colonnaded galleries with communal spaces in the courtyard below and a rooftop terrace above. The design is ideal for hot, dry climates providing privacy, security and comfort.


An advancement in groin vault design reached dizzying heights of articulation in the Gothic cathedrals of the late Medieval period. Stone ‘ribs’ gave increased support to the vaults, allowing clerestory windows to be placed higher and enlarged resulting in increased light into the interior.  

Image courtesy of Plâtres Vieujot


The semi-circular masonry arch, not a Roman invention but one they made widespread use of. Each of the stones or "voussoirs" are wedge shaped to distribute the load, transferring it to the ground via the impost, the top course of the masonry water table serving that function in this example..  


Clearly derived from ‘rose’, the French diminutive version of the word describes most smaller, stylized, round, symmetrical floral or plant ornament.
I love these two plaster rosettes from the Getty Villa, lotus on the left and acanthus on the right.


A large, circular window often placed in the gable of a church or cathedral, with tracery laid out in a radial pattern and an interior window of stained glass.

This Norman church in Kent, England features the most amazing of grotesque ornamentation.



Rubbed and gauged brickwork is the highest artistic expression of the medium and craft. Appropriate bricks are fired at low heat, made of the finest clay, sieved of any rocks.  They are then hand "gauged" or cut to the appropriate shape with axes, saws, rasps etc. and subsequently "rubbed" to a precise fit and finish against a harder rubbing stone.


As you might gather from the name, ‘rustication’ is a way of treating stone to appear more rough or ‘rustic’. This roughly hewn stone give an impression of strength.

This is appropriately used in the pictured example of a US Post Office on the ground floor and rusticated quoins where stability would be expected.


As far as I'm aware, Wells Cathedral is the only example. Not part of the original design, it was added almost 160 years after initial construction to stabilize a sagging tower on the verge of collapse.


A shared community of taste. A subjective yet universal judgement of what ought to be considered beautiful or sublime. Not an aesthetic that can be legislated or fully determined by reason it occurs naturally in a society where experience and feeling are valued and cultivated.


The use of a semicircular arch flanked by two narrower and lower rectangular openings was revived in practice by Renaissance architects Bramante and Rafael from ancient examples dating to the reign of Roman emperor Hadrian. 

However, this motif would gain wide acceptance due to the treatises of Serlio and Palladio, featuring prominently in the later Georgian and Colonial architecture of Great Britain and subsequent Federal architecture of the United States.


The main body of the column has its roots in Old German ‘schaft’ which just meant a pole. However, I can’t just stop there. There is so much going on in these column shafts that we need two bonus rounds!

Again reed is just what it sounds like, a pretty direct metaphor for the vertical fillets (flat narrow ridges) that run between the flutes.


The flutes are the vertical grooves running between the reeds and yes the name is thought to come from the same origin as the musical instrument and the champagne glass. Thank the French!

The cylindrical ‘cables’ are sometimes used to fill the flutes about a third the way up to protect the delicate reeds from damage.


An oriel balcony of Islamic architecture typically projecting over the street that features elaborately carved screens allowing for the passage of light and air while offering privacy.

The design was maintained and incorporated into Western architecture on the Iberian peninsula and subsequently in Latin America such as the early 20th century example of the Archbishop's Palace in Lima, Peru.

Sanskrit for "mountain peak", the great tower of the Hindu temple complex, typically having a convex taper towards the crowning great stone disc or AMALAKA, inspired by the shape of a local fig variety and symbolic of the sun and the heavenly realm.


From the Italian ‘soffitto’ meaning something ‘affixed under’, soffits can refer to the underside of a variety of projecting or transversing features from arches to balconies.

The underneath of projecting cornices are ideal places to enrich mouldings as exemplified by this exterior soffit at the Breakers, Newport RI.


A column whose shaft is twisted and often enriched with running vines. Having a purported origin from the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, the spiral column is often found as the support of the canopy over the high altar of a Catholic church. 


The ‘spandrel’ is the triangular, curvilinear space formed between arches and the entablature above. Spandrels are a natural focal point, an ideal surface to receive decorative treatment. They featured prominently in many of the designs of the Italian Renaissance and later Italianate revival.


A slender, typically octagonal pyramid set atop a square tower. In church architecture it stands as the crowning element of the steeple.  The pyramidal transition between the spire and the tower is called the broach..


An alternative to the pendentive, the conical or arcuated corbelling placed in the corners of a square plan to support the cylindrical or octagonal drum above, whilst at the same time resolving the smaller drum to the walls or piers below.


These terms of varied origin have collectively come to describe types of interlaced moulding patterns so
associated with traditional English ceilings. 

The description ‘strap’ came from its resemblance and inspiration from the leather tooling craft whereas ‘frete’ was a French word for the interlaced patterns engraved in or that otherwise adorned heraldry and shield decoration. ‘Tracery’, also of French origin, has strong associations with the Gothic, particularly the Rose window.
Image courtesy of Palladio Mouldings


When it came to architecture the Greeks and Romans had style…and it usually came in groups of 4, 6, 8 or 12.

What do I mean by that? The ancient Greek word ‘stylos’ (στῦλος) meant column or pillar. For example a temple front that had 6 columns in front would have been called ‘hexastyle’ or six column temple. The image attached is an example we all recognize of a ‘tetrastyle’ or four column portico.

Derived from the ancient Greek ‘summetria’ (συμμετρία), meaning ‘of like measure’. 
I think bilateral, axial symmetry is easy for us to identify, such as the symmetry we see everyday looking at our own face in the mirror (most of us anyway!) The Breakers in Newport displays this obvious symmetry as well. However, looking more carefully we can find many other subtle examples of symmetry manifest in the proportions of the façade, wing elevations, windows all the way down to the ornamentation. 


"But meanwhile it flees: time flees irretrievably, while we wander around, prisoners of our love of detail." - Virgil  


An ornamental mosaic composed of small cubes of coloured marble, glass or tile called 'tesserae', Latin for 'dice'.

This guilloche patterned example from the Roman port city of Ostia is about two thousand years old.


A monumental arch having four portals allowing for the passage of two intersecting streets.


The Greek word 'tholus' (θόλος) originally meaning 'dome', has long since been extended to include a circular structure, particularly of the colonnaded variety. The memorial to Mary Baker Eddy in Cambridge, MA provides a pristine example. 


A 2nd century Athenian clocktower had a unique, simplified treatment of the Corinthian capital where a single base row of acanthus leave sits underneath a row palmette leaves that reveal the curvature of the bell. This has become a very popular version of the Corinthian order in the United States. 



As every good head is supported by a neck, the Greeks decided their finest capitals should appear supported by a
NECKING band or "trachelion".

To take the anthropomorphic metaphor a bit further, I could imagine the alternating lotus and palmette motif of the Erechtheion trachelion as a kind of necklace.

The Romans did not employ balusters in the design of their parapets and banisters. Often a 'pierced screen', the Latin 'transenna' was used instead.

Also common for window openings the transenna offers security and privacy whilst providing beauty and air flow. 


‘Transept’ means ‘across the fence’ in Latin. Architecturally it is the section that crosses the nave separating it from the chancel in a cruciform cathedral. Sometimes the division between clergy and laity is literally expressed with a fence as at the Basilica Saint Sernin in Toulouse.   The shared space of the transept and nave is called the crossing and is often surmounted by a dome or spire.


Also derived from the Latin ‘cancellus’ meaning ‘lattice’ (again referring to the separating fence) the ‘chancel’ is the area beyond the transept that typically holds the choir, presbytery, altar and terminates in the apse. 

All of these ornaments are associated with the entablature frieze of the Doric architectural order. The name ‘triglyph’ derives from Greek, meaning ‘three glyphs’ (γλύφω)or carvings. The two indentations in the middle are obvious and you can notice two half glyphs on either side making a total of three complete gylyphs. The design is thought to represent the ends of three hewn and chamfered wooden planks bound together to form a beam for support of the attic.

The ‘taenia’ is the thin strip below the triglyph, marking the separation of the frieze above and the architrave of which it is the top most member. ‘Taenia’ is also of Greek origin (ταινία) meaning ‘ribbon’ or ‘tape’. Some may recognize it as the medical term for tapeworm.


In a classical liberal arts program these are the "three paths" that prepare the student for the deeper studies of the quadrivium. A simplified description is as follows: 

GRAMMAR - the mechanics of language 

LOGIC - the mechanics of thought 

RHETORIC - the use of grammar and logic to instruct or persuade.

The Roman emperors initiated a tradition of erecting freestanding ‘triumphal’ arches to commemorate their military victories. 

During the Renaissance the custom was revived. The architectural style also began to be incorporated into façades, the central arch emphasizing the main entry into or portal leading towards a building, a visual queue of its elevated status.


A truncated vault utilized in lieu of brackets or corbels as a support structure for a projecting architectural feature, permitting a change of vertical plane.



The more or less triangular arrangement of support for a gabled roof, traditionally a combination of timber members form the rigid framework.


Some might recognize this Latin word as the medical term for eardrum. In the original Greek usage ‘tumpanon’ (τύμπανον) had the more general meaning of something struck, particularly the skin of a drum.
As the open area inside a pediment resembles a stretched surface of a drum the name ‘tympanum’ was given to this area. The tympanum provides an open canvas crowning the entry and is a great place for sculptural expression that relates to the purpose of a building such as our Supreme Court.


A combined Sanskrit expression to describe the architecture of the ancient Hindu, Buddhist, Jain temple complex. VASTU denotes the 'physical site', including placement and orientation. PURUSA refers to the 'spirit, soul or essence' of the place. MANDALA embodies the 'form' manifesting the concepts of the 'circle, unity and the universe' enclosed by the square plan.


A semi-circular arched opening containing two smaller semi-circular openings (or in this case a window) separated by a small column or colonnette.


A circular form, either in the form of a plate, disc or an astragal type profile such as the foil opening above the center column of this example.


The upright almond shape formed by the two radial arcs, each passing through each other's centre. The shape has held sacred meaning at least since Egyptian times and geometrically is the key to unlocking several regular polygons, the golden section and other fundamental spatial forms. 


Ornamentation of a running vine featuring grape clusters and accompanying leaves. This unusual polychromatic example in high relief is taken from the ceiling of a late seventeenth century Irish chapel.

Image courtesy of Gary Callahan

‘Man is the measure of all things’ – Protagoras, 5th century BC.Leonardo da Vinci’s famous work relied on Vitruvius’ study of human proportion to create a geometrical model of the elevation of the human form.

Both Leonardo and Vitruvius embraced a tradition architecture based on fundamental, universal principles that exist in all life, including the human form. The ‘Vitruvian Woman’ was recently illustrated at a Critical Mass

Vitruvius may get the credit because this linear band pattern features so prominently in Roman architecture; however, wave scroll designs go back to antiquity. Also called a Running Dog (I never liked that name).

Steve Shriver produces an interesting variation of the pattern freehand as a sgraffito motif in marmorino.

Image courtesty of Steve Shriver


A logarithmic spiral scroll, inspired by the unfurling of fauna as well as the growth patterns of horns and shells. This Art Deco example provides quite simply an embarrassment of riches! 


The individual wedge-shaped arch stones or bricks whose converging sides are cut according to one or more radii depending on the type of arch or vault.


The particularly Moroccan tradition of geometric tile mosaic. Each of the myriad terra cotta pieces are cut by hand, glazed and fired. Layouts are made according to sacred geometric principles, in tri-, quatre- and cinque-fold arrangements.   Typical of zellige geometric layout is an infinite web that could extend infinitely beyond the border. This is a visible symbol of the infinite, uncentralized, nature of the universe, a implication of deep, underlying spiritual order without iconography.


























Contributed by Patrick Webb

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