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  • Writer's pictureRadomir Kobryn-Coletti

Bucranium: A Symbol of Ancient Sacrifice in Classical Architecture

bucranium in classical architecture

Origin of Bucranium

Bucranium, derived from the Latin words bos (ox or cow) and cranium (skull), refers to the bovine skulls found decorating friezes in classical architecture. In Ancient Greece they called it ‘bous’ (βοῦς) meaning ‘ox’, ‘kranion’ (κρανίον) meaning ‘skull’. Although primarily associated with Doric entablatures, they can also be found in Ionic and Corinthian friezes. Bucrania are rooted in ancient history and were known to be frequently seen at Ancient Greek and Roman sacrificial ceremonies, where cattle were ritually slaughtered to appease the Gods. The skulls of the sacrificed animals were originally hung with festoons of flowers on temples, then later eventually became sculpted representations in architectural ornamentation.

History of Bucranium

Bucrania, as an architectural ornament, can be traced back approximately 6800 to 5700 BCE, with excavations in the 1960s by James Mellaart revealing many uses of the bull's head and horns motif found in shrines at Çatalhöyük, a Neolithic village located in modern day central Turkey.

Illustration by Joan Relke

Later we see examples from the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete, where they were used in the decoration of the Palace of Knossos. The Minoan civilization, which emerged around 2600 BCE on the island of Crete, was one of the earliest and most advanced cultures in the Mediterranean. The Palace of Knossos, the largest and most complex of the Minoan palaces, was built around 2000 BCE and is considered an architectural marvel of the ancient world. This early use of the motif suggests that the bucranium had a long-standing association with sacred rituals and sacrificial practices in Mediterranean cultures, predating its adoption by the ancient Greeks.

Two great examples of the Bucrania or Bull motif appear at the entrance to the Palace of Knossos (above) and from a fresco painting of the bull-leaping ceremony (below), also found at Knossos.

In Minoan Crete, the bull was a sacred animal and was associated with fertility and the natural world. The Minoans held bull-leaping ceremonies known as "taurokathapsia," in which young men and women would perform acrobatic feats over the back of a charging bull. These ceremonies were thought to be a form of religious practice, a display of human skill and courage, and possibly a rite of passage for Minoan youths.

The Cretan myth of the Minotaur is closely tied to the sacred significance of the bull in Minoan society. The Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull creature, was said to reside in a labyrinth beneath the Palace of Knossos. According to Greek mythology, the Minotaur was the offspring of Queen Pasiphae of Crete and a magnificent bull sent by the sea god Poseidon. King Minos, Pasiphae's husband, commissioned the great inventor Daedalus to build the labyrinth to contain the monstrous creature. As tribute, Athenian youths were sent to the labyrinth to be devoured by the Minotaur, until the hero Theseus eventually killed the beast and escaped the labyrinth with the help of Minos's daughter, Ariadne.

While the myth of the Minotaur is of Greek origin, it has strong connections to the Minoan civilization and the importance of the bull in their culture. The presence of bucrania at the Palace of Knossos may reflect the mythological significance of the bull in Minoan society and its influence on later Greek mythology. The prevalence of the bucranium motif in Minoan art and architecture serves as a testament to the importance of the bull as a sacred symbol, and its connections to the enduring myth of the Minotaur add another layer of intrigue to the history of this ancient motif.

In ancient Greece, the bucranium gained prominence as a symbol of wealth and prosperity, as well as a representation of the bond between humans and nature. As cattle were highly valued assets in ancient societies, their presence in the form of bucrania on temple friezes symbolized the community's gratitude to the gods for their agricultural abundance. Moreover, the inclusion of bucrania in religious architecture emphasized the sanctity of the sacrificial act, which was central to ancient Greek religious practices.

The Etruscans, an ancient civilization in Italy that predated the Romans, also employed bucrania in their architectural ornamentation. Etruscan tombs have been found adorned with bucrania, which could indicate a connection between the motif and the Etruscan funerary rites or possibly a belief in the sacred nature of cattle.

Etruscan mural depiction of a Bull, from the Tomb of the Bulls in Tarquinia.
Etruscan mural from the Tomb of the Bulls in Tarquinia circa 530BC.

During the Roman period, bucrania were further developed and disseminated throughout the empire. The Romans adopted the motif from the Etruscans and Greeks and incorporated it into their architectural ornamentation, often combining it with other decorative elements such as festoons or swags of fruit and flowers.

Bucrania with festoons decorating the Temple of Vesta from Tivoli (Italy)
Bucrania with festoons decorating the Temple of Vesta from Tivoli (Italy)

Bucrania became a significant part of the Roman decorative vocabulary, appearing on public buildings, private residences, and even on coins as a symbol of the empire's prosperity and the Pax Romana.

One of the earliest published images of bucrania appears in Book IV of Sebastiano Serlio’s L’Architettura (1537) where he shows a Doric frieze, stating that was based on a frieze in Rome’s Forum Boarium, originally a cattle market . Whether the forum’s bucrania alluded to its market function is not known, but the market may have been a supplier of sacrificial animals.

With the fall of the Roman Empire and the onset of the Middle Ages, the use of bucrania declined, as did many other classical motifs. However, the motif experienced a resurgence during the Renaissance, as architects and artists revisited the classical past for inspiration. Bucrania were frequently employed in the decorative programs of Renaissance palazzi and villas, often in combination with other classical motifs like the acanthus leaf, egg-and-dart, or dentil moldings.

In the following centuries, the popularity of bucrania waned, especially during the Baroque and Rococo periods, which favored more intricate and ornate forms of ornamentation. However, with the rise of Neoclassicism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, bucrania once again gained prominence, as architects sought to revive the purity and simplicity of classical forms.

Further Examples of Bucranium

Examples of bucrania in classical architecture can be found in numerous ancient structures, including the Ara Pacis in Rome, an early archaic Greek temple in Sicily, and the Temple of Vespasian and Titus.

Bucranium on the frieze of the Temple of Vespasian and Titus in Rome.
Bucranium on the frieze of the Temple of Vespasian and Titus in Rome.

Renaissance architects incorporated bucrania into their works, with notable examples appearing in the treatises of Sebastiano Serlio, Giacomo Vignola, and Andrea Palladio. The use of bucrania spread throughout Europe, particularly in Great Britain, thanks to the Palladian movement and the work of Sir William Chambers.

Bucrania in Castle Coole, Northern Ireland.
Stair hall frieze, Castle Coole, Northern Ireland. Photograph by Calder Loth.

A fantastic example of Bucrania exists on the Basilica Palladiana by Anrea Palladio, in Vicenza, Italy. Whilst not clearly visible from a far distance, we will see below in great detail where the motif plays its part.

In the photo below, we see the 'frieze' just above the columns, the bucrania in amongst the 'triglyphs' (ornament tablet featuring three vertical lines) and patera (the round circular ornaments, with a second circle in the middle, resembling a dish).

In America, Thomas Jefferson was a prominent advocate of classical architectural ornamentation and incorporated bucrania into his designs for Monticello and the University of Virginia.

Bucranium in the Parlor Room of  Thomas Jefferson's residence 'Monticello'.
Bucranium in the Parlor Room of Thomas Jefferson's residence 'Monticello'.

Below, at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts we see Bucrania on the doorway entrance to the Holden Chapel building, added to an existing entrance around 1850 by Boston architect Gridley J.F. Bryant.

Bucrania and Bucranium at Harvard University, Holden Chapel.
Bucrania on a doorway entrance at Harvard University. Photograph by Susan Holloway Scott.

The motif can also be found in 19th-century American structures, such as Estouteville in Virginia and Charleston's Market Hall. However, the use of bucrania in American architecture remained limited, possibly due to their macabre or pagan associations.

Despite its origins in ancient sacrificial practices, the bucranium has persisted as an architectural detail, demonstrating the enduring influence of classical traditions in the design of buildings throughout history.

But the Bucranium ornament is not limited as decoration for entablature on the exterior of buildings and interior crown mouldings. In the above photo we see a superb George III Neoclassical antique fireplace in the Roman Doric order, in white statuary and Spanish Brocatelle marbles. The design of this is attributed to Sir William Chambers (1723–1796), architect to the King. Circa 1765–1770.

In conclusion, the history of bucrania reflects the larger story of classical architecture, as it evolved from its ancient roots to its various revivals and adaptations throughout history. Bucrania remain an enduring symbol of the cultural and artistic heritage of the Mediterranean world, highlighting the importance of ancient rituals and the powerful connection between humans, animals, and the divine.

Frequently Asked Questions on Bucranium/Bucrania (FAQ)

Q: What is a bucranium or bucrania in classical architecture?

A: Bucranium, or bucrania in plural, is an architectural ornament that represents the stylized skull of an ox or cow. It is typically found on friezes of entablatures in classical buildings, most commonly in the metopes of Doric entablatures.

Q: What is the origin of the term "bucranium"?

A: The term bucranium is derived from the Latin words "bos," meaning ox or cow, and "cranium," the Latin term for a skull.

Q: Why were bucrania used as architectural decoration in ancient Greek and Roman buildings?

A: Bucrania were used to allude to the ancient Greek and Roman ceremonies of sacrifice, where animals such as cattle were ritually slaughtered to appease the gods. The practice of hanging the heads of these sacrificial animals on temples was eventually memorialized with sculpted bucrania on temple friezes.

Q: Where can bucrania be found in classical architecture?

A: Bucrania can be found in various classical buildings, such as the Temple of Vespasian and Titus in Rome, the Basilica in Vicenza, Italy, and the Casino Marino in Dublin, Ireland.

Q: Which architectural orders typically feature bucrania?

A: Bucrania are most commonly found in the Doric order, but they can also appear in Ionic and Corinthian friezes in some instances.

Q: How were bucrania depicted in classical architecture?

A: Bucrania were often depicted as bare skulls or fully intact heads, sometimes adorned with garlands of fruit and flowers or decorative ropes with tassels.

Q: How did Renaissance architects incorporate bucrania into their works?

A: Renaissance architects encountered various versions of bucrania in their surveys and studies of Roman ruins. They freely applied bucrania to their works and illustrated them in their treatises, such as Sebastiano Serlio's L'Architettura and Giacomo Vignola's La Regola delli Cinque Ordini d'Architettura.

Q: How was the bucranium motif popularized in Great Britain during the Palladian movement?

A: The bucranium motif was popularized in Great Britain through the works and treatises of architects such as Palladio, Sir William Chambers, and James Wyatt, who incorporated bucrania in their designs for buildings like the Casino at Marino and Castle Coole.

Q: What role did Thomas Jefferson play in the use of bucrania in American architecture?

A: Thomas Jefferson was an advocate for architectural ornament based on ancient classical precedents. He applied bucrania in the entablatures of his dining room and parlor at Monticello, as well as in the parlors of Pavilions at the University of Virginia.

Q: Why might bucrania have been used sparingly in 19th-century American architecture?

A: Bucrania may have been used sparingly in 19th-century American architecture because many buildings during this time were designed in styles like Greek Revival, Italianate, or Gothic Revival, which did not include bucrania in their vocabularies. Additionally, the motif's associations with pagan rituals and its macabre appearance might have contributed to its limited use.

Further reading on Bucranium:

Joan Relke (2007) Interpreting the Bucrania of Çatalhöyük: James Mellaart,

Dorothy Cameron, and Beyond, Anthrozoös, 20:4, 317-328, DOI: 10.2752/089279307X245455

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