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HTS First Year Term 2

Illuminating Apollo Hoi Ching Lee Sabrina

The Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae is situated on the remote mountains of Kotilion in southwest Arcadia, Greece. Five miles away from the nearest human habitation, it was connected to the town of Phigaleia in a sacred way1. The temple has six columns on the main facades and fifteen columns on the long sides (14.48m by 38.24m) which is relatively small but elongated compared to the others2. Latest studies of the building conclude that the temple was constructed in 429-7 B.C. after the interruption of the Peloponnesian War, yet the architect of the temple remains to be controversial. Since its first discovery by Pausanias who attributed it to the architect of the Parthenon, Ictinus, the focus has been whether he is right or it was in fact built by a regional architect who followed Ictinus’s style, which is considered more logical by those who think the town was too small and poor to commission the Parthenon architect3.

The primary function of Greek temples is to house the God’s statue. The Temple of Bassae was to house the Apollo Epicurus – the god of sun and healing – whom the Phigaleians believe had protected them from plague and war invasion at that period of time4. However the statue itself had perished since first documented and there are more than one conjectures about the position of the statue. Among all the “bold” and “pioneering”5 architectural features it embodies, the most innovating one is the combination of the classical Greek architectural orders. As shown in the section drawings, the exterior surrounding the columns are Doric columns; the interior halfcolumns with buttresses on the side walls of the cella are tall Ionic columns; most importantly, the free-standing column in the middle that divides the cella and the adyton has a Corinthian capital, which is the oldest surviving one. Regarding the position of the missing cult statue of Apollo, one theory is that the cult image was placed in the cella before the Corinthian column along the central axis, facing the entrance. This is supported by most of the Greek temples in which the statue aligns with the central axis. Also, the pair of Ionic columns with diagonal spur walls would then serve as a decoration, “like a mitred frame surrounding the bronze statue”6 [Fig.01]. Another theory is that the centrally placed single Corinthian column is the cult image itself, since the use of columns and pillars to represent gods is not unprecedented; it also helps explain the total absence of the statue on the site7 [Fig. 02]. The last theory, which is able to explain the most peculiarities of the temple, is that the statue stood in the adyton facing eastward along the axis of light [Fig. 03]. If that was the case, the east adyton door, which is definitely unusual in Greek temples, would act as a window for the sunlight, which would land on the statue at dawn and create a theatrical illumination that visiting pilgrims could appreciate it in the cella.8


Mark Cartwright, “Bassae.”, Ancient History Enclopedia. Acessed March 3, 2018, Arnold Walter Lawrence and and Richard Allan Tomlinson, Greek Architecture. 5th ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 134. 2

Alexander Tzonis and Phoebe Giannisi, Classical Greek Architecture: The Construction of the Modern (Paris: Flammarion, 2004), 42-59. 3


Cartweight, “Bassae.”

"Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae." UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Accessed March 19, 2018. 5

Frederick A. Cooper, "The Temple of Apollo at Bassae: New Observations on Its Plan and Orientation." American Journal of Achaeology 72, no.2 (1968), 108-9. 6


Tzonis and Giannisi, Classical Greek Architecture, 58.


Cooper, “New Observations”, 103-111.

Drawing 1 - the section illustrates how the light illuminates the statue during the very brief time after sunrise, whilst the plan explains how the sun’s rays enter the adyton from the door. Before sunrise, presumably on a mid-summer day, the adyton was pitch-black, until the first ray of dawn seeps into the house through the door on the east, dramatically flash onto the statue. At that time the sun is low so that the light only fell on the head and torso of the tall image, from approximately 2m to 4m above the floor (yellow shade). Few minutes later, the beam of light would spread over the entire figure and the floor as well (orange shade). This moment would explain the design of the irregular pavement on the adyton floor - so that the diagonal light streak would match some of their intersecting edges (lines in white). This will remain for around twenty minutes, with the sun streak gradually moving to north and becoming narrower (brown shade), and ultimately disappear. The temple returns to darkness.9 Drawing 2 illustrates the anomaly that is the east adyton door and how it remains invisible from the standpoint in the cella. First, on the doorway itself – studies have proven that it used to have two leafs, with the southern leaf permanently fixed in place and backed by a block placed behind it, which helped block light entering underneath10; and the northern one which was free to open and allowed that single beam of light enter the temple. Such design is for the illumination effect but is unusual and abnormal in Greek temples. The east oblique Ionic column have helped to blocked the view of the door arrangement and make it not be seen by visitors in the temple’s interior11.

Drawing 3 depicts the temple’s position on the Mt. Kotilion landscape. Another widely discussed anomaly of this temple is that it has a north-south orientation instead of east-west which is the case for most Greek temples, with the entrance facing north and therefore the town of Philgaleia. Of course, this would be due to the direction of the sunlight needed for the lighting phenomenon. Apart from the temple’s interior, the peculiar adyton doorway was also remain hidden from the outside. As on the east side of the temple, it was observed that a mount of earth rises abruptly which should be able to evacuate but was not. This made the east side of the temple much less accessible than the west side and helped prevent the sight of the doorway. On the day of festival before sunrise, the pilgrims would approach the temple from the southwest corner, then walk along the west flank, since the south and east sides didn’t have a clear pathway. Then they will enter the pronaos and the cella and appreciate the beautiful illumination of Apollo Epicurius.12 13

Behind the north-west setting of the temple that helped achieve the illumination, there is in fact an important process to determine the orientation, based on the study on different discoveries and measurements. First step: after deciding on the width of the beam of light (one Doric foot, 0.32m) and the width of the wall area necessary for brightening up the cult (0.74m), the architect created an aperture of one Doric foot/0.32m wide on the site, to let the sunlight at dawn pass through [Fig. 04]. Second step: a cornerstone, with its length cut to 0.74m, was positioned on the beam of light, so that the two adjacent corners of its 0.74m side intersected the respective edges of the light streak. 9

Cooper, “New Observations”, 106.


Cooper, “New Observations”, 107.


Cooper, “New Observations”, 111.


Cooper, “New Observations”, 111.

Nancy Kelly, “"The Archaic Temple of Apollo at Bassai: Correspondences to the Classical Temple”, Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens 64, no,2 (1995), 233. 13

(This cornerstone still remains on site.) Finally: the orientation of the temple was determined by the cornerstone, which fixed the corner of the temple. Adjustment on the existing plan was needed to bring the width between the door jamb and the sixth peripheral column to one Doric foot wide, so that column was shifted slightly 0.28m to the South.14

Fig 04

Fig 06


Cooper, “New Observations�, 108.

Fig 05

Fig 07

Bibliography “The classical orders,” YouTube video, 11:07, posted by “Smarthistory. art, history, conversation,” May 17, 2013, “The Pantheon,” YouTube video, 8:31, posted by “Smarthistory. art, history, conversation,” Jul 14, 2013, "Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae." UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Accessed March 19, 2018. Cartwright, Mark. "Bassae." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Accessed March 3, 2018. Cooper, Frederick A. "The Temple of Apollo at Bassae: New Observations on Its Plan and Orientation." American Journal of Archaeology72, no. 2 (1968): 103. doi:10.2307/502832. Jones, Mark Wilson. Origins of Classical Architecture: Temples, Orders and Gifts to the Gods in Ancient Greece. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. Kelly, Nancy. "The Archaic Temple of Apollo at Bassai: Correspondences to the Classical Temple." Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens 64, no. 2 (1995): 22777. Lawrence, Arnold Walter, and Richard Allan Tomlinson. Greek Architecture. 5th ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996. Tzonis, Alexander, and Phoebe Giannisi. Classical Greek Architecture: The Construction of the Modern. Paris: Flammarion, 2004.

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