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A pediment is a low-pitched triangular gable originally found on temples in ancient Greece and Rome. Pediments were reinvented during the Renaissance and later imitated in Greek Revival and Neoclassical house styles of the 19th and 20th centuries. Use of pediments has been freely adapted in many styles of architecture, yet remains most closely associated with Greek and Roman (i.e., Classical) derivatives.
The word pediment is thought to have come from the word meaning pyramid, as the triangular pediment has a spatial dimension similar to the pyramid.
Use of Pediments
Originally the pediment had a structural function. As the Jesuit priest Marc-Antoine Laugier explained in 1755, the pediment is one of only three essential elements of what Laugier called the basic primitive hut. For many Greek temples, first made of wood, the triangular geometry had a structural function.
Fast forward 2,000 years from ancient Greece and Rome to the Baroque period of art and architecture, when the pediment became an ornamental detail to be extravagantly modified.
Pediments are most often used today to create a solid, regal, stately look-and-feel to the architecture, such as is used for banks, museums, and government buildings. Often, the triangular space is filled with symbolic statuary when a message need be proclaimed. The space within a pediment is sometimes called the tympanum, although this word more commonly refers to the Medieval-era arch areas over a doorway decorated with Christian iconography. In residential architecture, pediments are commonly found above windows and doorways.
Examples of Pediments
The Pantheon in Rome proves just how far back in time pediments were used - at least 126 A.D. But pediments were around before that, as can be seen in ancient cities around the world, like the UNESCO World Heritage site of Petra, Jordan, the Nabataean caravan city influenced by Greek and Roman rulers.
Whenever architects and designers turn to ancient Greece and Rome for ideas, the result will likely include the column and the pediment. The Renaissance in the 15th and 16th centuries was such a time -- a rebirth of Classical designs by the architects Palladio (1508-1580) and Vignola (1507-1573) leading the way.
In the United States, American statesman Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) influenced the architecture of a new nation. Jefferson's home, Monticello, incorporates Classical design by using not only a pediment but also a dome - very much like the Pantheon in Rome. Jefferson also designed the Virginia State Capitol Building in Richmond, Virginia, which influenced the federal government buildings being planned for Washington, D.C. Irish-born architect James Hoban (1758-1831) brought Neoclassical ideas from Dublin to the new capital when he modeled the White House after the Leinster House in Ireland.
In the 20th century, pediments can be seen throughout America, from the New York Stock Exchange in Lower Manhattan to the 1935 U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C. and then on to the 1939 mansion known as Graceland near Memphis, Tennessee.
"pediment: the triangular gable defined by the crown molding at the edge of a gabled roof and the horizontal line between the eaves." - John Milnes Baker, AIA
Other Uses of the Word "Pediment"
Antique dealers will often use the word "pediment" to describe an ornate flourish in Chippendale-era furniture. Because the word describes a shape, it is often used to describe man-made and natural shapes. In geology, a pediment is a sloping formation caused by erosion.
Five Types of Pediments
1. Triangular Pediment: The most common pediment shape is the pointed pediment, a triangle framed by a cornice or ledge, with the apex at the top, two symmetrical straight lines sloping to the ends of a horizontal cornice. The "rake" or angle of the slope can vary.
2. Broken Pediment: In a broken pediment, the triangular outline is non-continuous, open at the top, and without a point or vertex. The "broken" space is usually at the top apex (eliminating the top angle), but sometimes at the bottom horizontal side. Broken pediments are often found on antique furniture. A swan-necked or ram's head pediment is a type of broken pediment in a highly ornamented S-shape. Broken pediments are found in Baroque architecture, a period of "experimentalism in detail," according to Professor Talbot Hamlin, FAIA. The pediment became an architectural detail with little or no structural function.
"Baroque detail thus became a matter of the increasingly free modification of forms originally classic, to made them sensitive to every possible nuance of emotional expression. Pediments were broken and their sides curved and scrolled, separated by cartouches, or urns; columns were twisted, moldings duplicated and reduplicated to give sharp emphasis, and broken suddenly out and in where a complexity of shadow was desired." - Hamlin, p. 427
3. Segmental Pediment: Also called round or curved pediments, segmental pediments contrast with triangular pediments in that they have a round cornice replacing two sides of the traditional triangular pediment. A segmental pediment might complement or even be called a curvilinear tympanum.
4. Open Pediment: In this type of pediment, the usual strong horizontal line of the pediment is absent or nearly absent.
5. Florentine Pediment: Before Baroque, architects of the early Renaissance, when sculptors became architects, developed a decorative styling of pediments. Over the years, this architectural detail became known as "Florentine pediments," after their use in Florence, Italy.
"It consists of a semicircular form placed above the entablature, and as wide as the enclosing columns or pilasters. Usually a simple ban of moldings runs around it, and the semicircular field below is often decorated with a shell, although sometimes molded panels and even figures are found. Little rosettes and leaf and flower forms are usually used to fill the corner between the ends of the semicircle and the cornice below, and also as a finial at the top." - Hamlin, p. 331
Pediments for the 21st Century
Why do we use pediments? They give a sense of tradition to a home, in the Western Classical architecture sense. Also, the geometric design itself is innately pleasing to the human senses. For today's homeowners, creating a pediment is a rather simple, inexpensive way to add decoration - usually over a door or window.
Have pediments gone sideways? Today's modern skyscraper architects use triangles for structural strength as well as beauty. David Childs' design for One World Trade Center (2014) is a good example of aesthetically pleasing grandeur. Norman Foster's Hearst Tower (2006) is filled with triangulation; its beauty is up for discussion.
- American House Styles: A Concise Guide by John Milnes Baker, AIA, Norton, 1994, p. 175
- Architecture through the Ages by Talbot Hamlin, Putnam, Revised 1953, pp. 444, 427, 331
- Furniture with broken pediment Agostini/A. Dagli Orti/Getty Images (cropped)
- Broken Pediment on Residential Portico Richard Leo Johnson/Getty Images (cropped)
- Contrasting pediments Julian Castle/ArcaidImages/Getty Images
- Pediments over windows Brian Bumby/Getty Images