Art & architecture terms

Common architectural terms (Photo by unknown)
Common architectural terms

A glossary of common art and architecture terminology

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  • Aisle - A corridor down the nave of a church; usually applied to the two side corridors separated from the central, usually larger corridor by rows of columns.
  • Ambulatory - Continuation of the side aisles to make a walkway around the chancel space behind the main altar of a church.
  • Amphora - A two-handled jar with a tapered neck used by the ancients to keep wine, oil, and other liquids.
  • Apse - The semi-circular space behind the main altar of a church.
  • Arcade - A series of arches supported by columnspiers, or pilasters.
  • Architrave - The long vertical element lying directly across the tops of a series of columns (the lowest part of an entablature); or the moulding around a door or window.
  • Arriccio - The first, rough layer of plaster laid down when applying the art of fresco to a wall. On this layer, the artist makes the rough sinopia sketches.
  • Art Nouveau - An ornamental decorative and architectural style, influenced by the asymmetry of nature, popular from the late 19th to early 20th centuries. For some reason, every country has its own name for this movement—except English-speaking ones; we just use the French term.
  • Atrium - An open courtyard, especially used in ancient Roman houses, or the first courtyard you come to past the entrance of a church or monastic complex.


  • Baldacchino - A stone canopy over a church altar.
  • Baroque - A long era in art and architecture (16th to 18th centuries) following the Renaissance that, while still inspired by Classicism, was increasingly ornate (to much current taste, overly decorative) and experimental, with lots of complex interplay of arches and curves in the architecture. The term supposedly derives from a word for an irregular pearl—though no one can quite satisfactorily explain what irregular pearls have to do with the baroque style. In painting, the baroque was often marked by a heightened realism, pastels, and a strong use of chiaroscuro (by the Caravaggiesque school).
  • Basilica - A from of architecture first used for public halls and law courts in ancient Roman cities. Early Christians adopted the form—a huge, long, rectangular room, divided into a central nave with side aisles but no transept—to build their first large churches.
  • Bay - The space between two columns or piers.
  • Blind Arcade - An arcade of pilasters (i.e.: the arches are all filled in), a defining acrhitectural feature of the Romanesque style.
  • Byzantine - Medieval style of painting from the 5th to late 13th centuries heavily influenced by Eastern traditions; highly static and conservative, with severe cross-hatching of gold leaf on the red-and-blue clothing, long noses with a scoop at the top, and almond-shaped eyes. Also, this was the heyday of mosaics. 


  • Caldarium - The hot tub or steam room of a Roman bath.
  • Canopic vase - Ancient Egyptian or Etruscan funerary vase housing the entrails of the deceased.
  • Capital - The top of a column. The classical “orders” or types are Doric (plain), Ionic (with scrolls, called volutes, at the corners), or Corinthian (leafy; for the exam: they’re acanthus leaves). There’s also Tuscan (even simpler than Doric; the column is never fluted, or grooved, and usually has no base), and composite (Corinthian superimposed with Ionic). In many paleochristian and Romanesque churches, the capital is carved with primitive animal and human heads or simple biblical scenes.
  • Cartoon - In Italian cartone, literally “big paper,” the full-sized preparatory sketch made during the art of fresco. This would be held against the fresh layer of arriccio and traced against the wall (either by pounding charcoal dust through small perforations along the lines, or by tracing the lines themselves to incise them into the plaster). Based on this faint outline, the master artist would then create his sinopia sketch.
  • Caryatid - A column carved to resemble a woman (see also: telamon).
  • Cavea - The semicircle of seats in a classical theater.
  • Chancel - Space around the high altar of a church generally reserved for the clergy and the choir.
  • Chiaroscuro - Using patches of light and dark colors in painting to model figures and create the illusion of three dimensions (Caravaggio was a master at also using the technique to create mood and tension).
  • Choir - Architecturally, the space reserved for the choir to sing, often filled with stalls of seats for them, in most Italian churches now located in the chapel, sanctuary, or short transept end behind the high altar. (In many Gothic churches, it was once located in front of the high altar, in the nave, separated from the congregation by a rood screen, and separating the congregation itself from really seeing the Mass being performed at the altar. In the Baroque era, when religion became a little less mystified, most of these were removed from Italian churches.)
  • Cinerary urn - Vase or other vessel containing the ashes of the deceased; Etruscan ones were often carved with a relief on the front and, on the lid, a half-reclining figure representing the deceased at a banquet.
  • Clerestory - A second level to the nave of a church, above the aisle arches, punctuated by windows. Frequently seen in the medieval Norman and Gothic eras.
  • Cloister - A roofed walkway open on one side and supported by columns, usually used in the plural since often four of them faced each other to make the interior open-air courtyards, often centered around a small garden, found in monasteries and convents. The monks and nuns used it as a contemplative setting in which to wander; and in “cloistered orders” this was the only part of the outside world with which they regularly had contact.
  • Coffered - Set with decorative depressions or sunken panels (square or polygonal), usually in a ceiling.
  • Colonnaded - Lined with columns.
  • Column - An architectural support, usually cylindrical.
  • Conatraposto - Asymmetry, or freedom of movement, within a figure. Typically this is expressed as a twisted pose in which a figure's weight is thrown one way then counter-balanced by the figure's contortions.This is the ancient artistic equivalent of flexing one's muscles to show off definition. First used by the ancients, revived by Michelangelo, and an earmark of the Mannerist school.
  • Convent - A religious community of men or women who follow the rules of an order and interact with one another on a daily basis; from the word convenire, to gather or assemble. This is opposed to a monastery, where the members of the religious order live semi-sequestered lives of meditation and may meet only for meals and church services; from monasterion, to live alone. Despite general American usage, the terms originally had little to do with the gender of the monks or nuns inside.
  • Corinthian - Describing a column capital featuring a decorative profusion of acanthus leaves. (See: "Capital")
  • Cornice - Protruding section, usually along the very top of a wall, facade, or entablature; a pediment is usually framed by a lower cornice and two sloping ones.
  • Crenellated - Topped by a regular series of protrusions and crevices; these battlements often ring medieval buildings or fortresses to aid in defense (you could hide behind the merlons, or stony protrusions, them and fire arrows through the crenels, or gaps).
  • Crypt - An underground burial vault, in churches usually found below the altar end and in Italy often the remnant of an older version of the church.
  • Cupola - Dome.


  • Diptych - A painting in two sections.
  • Doric - Describing a very plain type of column capital. (See: "Capital")


  • Entablature - Section riding above a colonnades, made up of the architrave (bottom), frieze (middle), and cornice (top; all three terms qv.)
  • Ex voto - A small plaque, statue, painting, or other memento left by a supplicant, signifying either their gratitude to a saint or special Madonna or imploring the saint’s help in some matter. Particularly revered icons are often surrounded by them. If the divine help being sought is medical in nature, the ex-votos are often small silver, low relief replicas of the afflicted body part (an arm, leg, intestinal track whatever).


  • Foreshortening - Using angled or progressively exaggerated lines to suggest depth—an element of the painterly technique that would evolve into true perspective.
  • Forum - The main square in an ancient Roman town, a public space used for assemblies, courts, speeches, and on which important temples and civic buildings were located.
  • Fresco - The multi-step art of creating a painting on fresh plaster (fresco means fresh). After laying down a rough arriccio (above), the master uses a cartoon (above) to guide him or freehand paints a sinopia (below) sketch of the scene, then covers small portions with a smooth intonatco layer of plaster. These small sections are called giornate, or “dailys,” because they are the amount the artist can paint in one day while the intonaco is drying (the lime in both the plaster and the paint’s water bonds and helps sink the colors beneath the surface of the plaster, creating a durable buon fresco, or “good fresco”). The more complicated the section to be painted, like a face, the smaller the giornata. Apprentices or assistants often took care of background, architectural details, and drapes on large giornate. When the fresco was done and dry, the artist could touch it up on the surface in the art of mal fresco, called “bad fresco” because the color would remain on the surface and often flake off of be otherwise subjected to the ravages of the outer world (candle smoke, damp, inept cleanings, etc.).
  • Frigidarium - Room for cold baths in a Roman bath.
  • Frieze - A decorative, horizontal band or series of panels, usually carved in relief and at the center of an entablature.


  • Gothic - An era in art and architecture spanning the 13th and 14th centuries, influenced in part by the style of northern Europe. In art, the Gothic era showed increased emotionality, naturalism, and foreshortening; and epitomized in the sculpture of the Pisanos and the painting of Giotto and his school. In architecture, the Gothic style was promulgated by the preaching orders (Franciscans and Dominicans) and—unlike the more familiar decorative heights the Gothic reached north of the Alps, all flying buttresses and stone filagree—in Italy the Gothic remained a somewhat more blockish style overall, only with the characteristic pointed supporting arches and with pointed windows containing some fanciful stone work.
  • Graffiti - Incised decorative designs, usually repetitive, on an outer wall made by painting the surface in two thin layers, one light the other dark, then scratching away the top layer to leave the designs in contrast.
  • Greek Cross - Building ground plan in the shape of a cross whose arms are of equal length.
  • Grotesques - Carved or painted faces, animals, and designs, often deliberately exaggerated or ugly, used to decorate surfaces and composite sculptures (such as fountains) by everyone from the Etruscans to the Baroque era. The term derived from this ancient style's rediscovery by Renaissance artists painted on what appeared to be the walls of underground caves—grotto in Italian—but were actually just the painted rooms of ancient palaces that had long since been buried by the time Raphael and his ilk chopped holes in the ceilings and lowered themselves down on ropes.


  • Humanism - A 14th–16th century intellectual movement in philosophy, literature, art, and technology that emphasized a rediscovery of ancient (and Middle Eastern) wisdom, natural observation, and proto-scientific investigation and experimentation. This would eventually flower into the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.


  • Icon - A representation (often a painting) of a sacred Christian figure, usually a Madonna or a saint, often revered on in its own right for the magical properties it traditionally possesses to help supplicants in times of need.
  • Illuminated - Describing a manuscript or book, usually a choir book or bible, that has been decorated with colorful designs, miniatures, figures, scenes, and fancy letters, often produced by anonymous monks.
  • Intarsia - Inlaid wood, marble, precious stones, or metal.
  • Intonaco - Plaster in general; in art used to define the layer of fresh, smooth, lime-heavy plaster upon which the artist painted the colors during the art of making a fresco.
  • Ionic - Describing a column capital featuring scrolls, called volutes, at the corners. (See: "Capital")


  • Lapis lazuli - A semi-precious stone that was ground up and used to make paint in a bright, blue color, popular for Virgin Mary dresses and celestial skies. Since this stone was found only in Asia Minor (modern-day Afghanistan), and it had to be imported "over the sea," the color it made was called "ultramarine." (The stone is also found in Chile, but Europeans didn't know that in the pre-Colombian era.)
  • Latin Cross - Building ground plan in the shape of a Crucifix-style cross, where one arm is longer than the other three (this is the nave).
  • Loggia - Roofed porch, balcony or gallery, open on one side.
  • Lozenge - A decorative, regularly-sided diamond (i.e.: square on its corner), either marble inlay or as a sunken depression, centered in the arcs of a blind arcade on Romanesque architecture.
  • Lunette - Semi-circular wall space created by various ceiling vaultings, or above a door or window; often it’s decorated with a painting, mosaic, or relief.


  • Mannerist - A 16th-century off-shoot of the High Renaissance, an artistic movement that used increasingly garish colors (in painting), twisting poses (in painting and sculpture), and exaggerations on Classicism (in architecture) to stretch Michelangelo’s experiments and Renaissance ideals to their logical limits. 
  • Madonna and Child - One of the single most popular images in European art history: Mary holding the infant Jesus on her lap (he’s usually holding up two fingers in a traditional teaching gesture). When She’s sitting on a particularly elaborate chair, often surrounded by angels, it’s usually called:
  • Madonna Enthroned. Add a few saints around her, and you’ve got Madonna and Child with Saints (by the High Renaissance, particularly in the Umbrian school, when scenes like this were beginning to look less posed and more like a personal gathering of friends, the paintings came to be called Sacred Conversations). When the early Sienese school surrounded Mary, her Throne and Child with dozens of saints and holy worthies, they started calling it “Madonna in Majesty,” or Maestà.
  • Maestà - A "Madonna in Majesty" scene.
  • Majolica - Tin-glazed earthenware pottery usually elaborately painted, a process pioneered and mastered in Italy in the 14th through 17th centuries. 


  • Narthex - Interior vestibule of a church.
  • Nave - The longest section of a church, usually leading from the front door to the altar, where the worshippers sit; often divided into aisles.
  • Neoclassical - An even stronger return to an idealized version of the Classical ancient style than the Renaissance saw—lots of columns and perfect proportions and white. Popular in the 19th century and epitomized in architecture by Andrea Palladio and his Palladian style (which was hugely influential around the world; think Jefferson's Monticello, or the government buildings and monuments of Washington, DC). 


  • Pediment - A wide gable at the top of a facade or above a doorway. Traditionally triangular, the Baroque era loved making them rounded, and later “breaking” the arcing line by setting the center half of the arc’s rim back and having the two lower sections on either side protrude.
  • Pendentives - The four curved triangles of wall that sprout from the tops of piers and expand to meet the bottom rim of a dome.
  • Perspective - The artistic use of angled lines, warped geometry, subtle shading, and sfumatocolor diffusion to create the illusion of three dimensions on a flat surface. (Think: A drawing of train tracks coming together as they recede into the distance. It's more complicated than that, but that's a start.)
  • Pier - A rectangular vertical support (like a column).
  • Pilaster - Often called pilaster strip, it is a column, either rounded of squared off, set into a wall rather than separate from it.
  • Polyptych - A panel painting having more than one section, hinged so it can be folded up (many were small and private so personal devotional images could be carried in people’s saddlebags while traveling and set up on a table in the rooms where they stopped for the night). Two-paneled ones are called diptychs, three-paneled one triptychs. Any more panels uses the general term.
  • Porphyry - Any igneous rock with visible shards of crystals suspended in a matrix of fine particles.
  • Portico - A porch.
  • Predella - Small panel or series of panels below the main part of an altarpiece, often used to tell a story of Christ’s Passion or a saint’s life comic strip–style.
  • Putti - Cherubs (sing. putto); chubby naked toddler boys sculpted or painted, often with wings, and a favorite decoration of the Baroque era.


  • Renaissance - French for “rebirth”, it refers to the period that started in Florence in the 15th century when humanist philosophy and a study of classical models led art to free itself from medieval static traditions and explore both the emotional (expressiveness) and scientific (naturalism, perspective) sides of art. The phenomenon of the Renaissance spread to literature and other arts and from Italy throughout all of Europe by the 17th century.
  • Rococo - The Baroque run amok, nightmarishly excessive and ridiculously decorative, with garish, overdone, stuccoes dripping off ceilings and pastel putti populating paintings. 
  • Romanesque - A style of architecture popular especially in northern Tuscany, originating in Pisa in the 12th century and lasting until the advent of the Gothic in the 13th century. It is marked by strong bands of colored marbles (white and green or black), blind arcades (often set with losenges), and facades made of stacks of colonnaded, open galleries. 
  • Rood screen Some churches use a kind of half wall—named for the Saxon word for a Crucifixion, or rood, it often supports—to separate the nave from the chancel.


  • Sacristy - The room in a church that houses the sacred vestments and vessels—and, for our purposes, often frescoed (in most Italian churches, it’s accessible through a door near the altar end of the church, but don’t barge in uninvited).
  • Sanctuary - Technically the holiest part of a church, the term is used to refer to the area just around or behind the high altar.
  • Sarcofagus - A stone coffin or casket.
  • Sfumato - Leonardo da Vinci’s patented technique of creating hazy backgrounds, blurring the outlines of figures, and otherwise infusing paintings with a filmy, limpid quality that had definite focal lengths and thus greatly heightened the realism.
  • Sinopia - The preparatory sketch for a fresco done on the rough plaster underneath. Literally, it means a kind of cheap, brownish clay from Sinope, in Asia Minor. When mixed with water it made a crude paint used by fresco artists to brush a monotone sketch on the rough, arricciolayer of plaster during the fresco-making process. The artists either did it freehand (the earlier habit) or used the sinopia paint to trace—and often rework—the marks left by the cartoon image. Since the fresco itself was on a separate layer of plaster, in removing and restoring frescoes, the sinopia layer underneath is often revealed, detached, and displayed on its own, offering insight into the artist’s creative process and showing his art at its freest and least self-conscious (it never entered the Renaissance mind that these sinopie would ever be seen by the public).
  • Spandrel - Triangular wall space created when two arches in an arcade curve away from each other (or from the end wall).
  • Stoup - A holy-water basin.
  • Stucco - Plaster composed of sand, powdered marble, water, and lime, often molded into decorative relief (especially during the Baroque and Rococo eras, but once used by the ancient Romans as well) or formed into statuary or applied in a thin layer to the exterior of a building.


  • Telamone - A column sculpted to look like a man (also see: caryatid).
  • Tempera - A fast-drying painting medium; in the Gothic era, the pigments were often fixed in an egg yolk base.
  • Tepidarium - The room for a warm bath in a Roman bath.
  • Tondo - A round painting or sculpture.
  • Transept - The lateral cross-arm of a cruciform church, perpendicular to the nave.
  • Trecento - The 14th century (In Italian, literally “1300s”), often used to describe that era of art dominated by the styles of Giotto and the International Gothic. 
  • Tribune - The raised platform from which an orator speaks, used to describe the raised section of some churches around and behind the altar from which Mass is performed.
  • Triptych - A painting in three sections.
  • Trompe l’Oeil - French for “fool the eye,” it means using advanced techniques of perspective, lighting, near-photorealism, and other painterly techniques to create a highly believable illusion of three-dimensionality, of great space and depth, on a flat surface. Painting a fake dome on a flat ceiling, turning the walls of a room into open balustrades overlooking the countryside, making a nave ceiling appear to be four stories of Classical architecture high and open to the skies, that sort of thing. The Baroque era got it down to a science.
  • Tympanum - The triangular or semicircular space between the cornices of a pediment or between the lintel above a door and the arch above it.