What is a Frieze?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A frieze is a decorative architectural feature which runs along the upper portion of a structure. On the exterior of a building, a frieze appears beneath the cornice, the ornamental moldings directly below the roof, while on the inside of a structure, a frieze typically runs above windows and doorways, and is often flush with the ceiling. Many structures designed in the classical style have very distinctive examples of friezes, such as those which decorate the entablature of the Parthenon in Athens.

Ionic columns with scrolls are often used in conjunction with a decorative frieze.
Ionic columns with scrolls are often used in conjunction with a decorative frieze.

Friezes are generally decoratively painted or carved, and sometimes both. Many classical friezes depicted mythological figures, and in some cases the frieze was designed to tell a story in multiple panels. Other friezes are more simply ornamented with geometric themes like stripes, spirals, squares, meanders, and so forth, and floral themes are not uncommon either.

The construction materials for a frieze vary. In some cases, the frieze is carved from stone like marble, slate, or limestone, and in other instances friezes are made from cast metal or plaster. In more modern structures, a frieze may be made from wood and painted or textured to differentiate it from the rest of a structure; the design of modern friezes also tends to be much less elaborate.

Classical and neoclassical architectural structures are often abundantly decorated with friezes, both inside and out. In classical architecture, the frieze was included as part of the superstructure which supported the roof of a structure; this superstructure is known as the entablature, and it typically rests on the tops of the distinctive columns which mark classical architecture. Different styles of classical architecture have very distinctive entabulatures which can be used to identify the period in which they were built. Highly ornamental friezes were also employed in Baroque architecture, when they were sometimes brightly painted as well.

It is generally extremely easy to recognize a frieze, although friezes can sometimes be hard to differentiate from all of the other ornamental features on a particularly lavishly decorated building. As a general rule, friezes are wider than the surrounding ornamental molding, and they are often slightly recessed, although this is not always the case.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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