Classical Comments: The Patera

by Calder Loth
Senior Architectural Historian for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and a member of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America‘s Advisory Council

The patera is among the most ubiquitous of all Classical details, yet few people know the story behind it. The word “patera” is Latin for a shallow dish or pan. It derives from the Greek word patane, which also means a flattened dish. From it, we get the word paten, the small bread plate used in the Christian service of the Eucharist. More specifically, patera is the term for the shallow offering dish that figured in the ancient ceremonies of sacrifice. The typical sacrifice included a ritual of libation, which consisted of pouring wine or other sacred liquid into the patera as an offering to a god.

Calder Loth

In Antoine Desgodetz’s engraving of the famous frieze of the temple of Vespasian and Titus, we see the various articles employed in Roman sacrifice ceremonies. (Figure 1) To the right is the priest’s headdress. Next is the aspergillum, the wand that the priest used to sprinkle wine or water on the head of the sacrificial ox (or other animals—different gods required different animals). This sprinkling caused the ox to nod spontaneously, giving the signal that it was ready for sacrifice. The ax was used to kill the ox, and the knife was employed to cut it up. The horsetail whisk was needed to brush away flies swarming on the resulting gore. From the flagon or pitcher, the priest poured the ceremonial wine into the circular dish or patera, which in this case is richly decorated, more resembling a shield. Frequently, the wine was then emptied from the patera onto the ground as an offering to the earth. Following its dismemberment, the ox’s entrails were examined for omens and then burned. The rest of the ox was usually roasted and eaten by the assembled crowd. Retaining the decorations of festoons and tassels, the ox’s skull, also known as a bucrane, frequently was hung on the temple following the ceremony.

Figure 1: Desgodetz, Les Edifices Antiques de Rome, page 135 (detail)

In a frieze detail in the Ara Pacis Augustae, Rome’s altar of Augustan peace (consecrated 9 BC), we see the procession of sacrificial animals along with an attendant carrying a patera aloft. (Figure 2) An attendant before him carries the triangular knife for cutting up the kill.

Figure 2: frieze detail, Ara Pacis Augustae, Rome (Loth)

More often, the patera is represented not as a dish encrusted with decorations as in the temple of Vespasian and Titus, but in simpler form, consisting of concentric shallow moldings. We find an example of this more standard version decorating the ends of a Roman sarcophagus in the Metropolitan Museum. (Figure 3) Renaissance architects favored this simpler form and promoted it in their publications and buildings. In his Canon for the Five Orders of Architecture (1562), Jacopo da Vignola used alternating paterae and bucrania to decorate the metopes in one of his versions of the Doric order. (Figure 4) Palladio followed suit in his own Doric order, illustrated in his famous treatise, The Four Books of Architecture (1570). Palladio’s Doric entablature on Vicenza’s Basilica likewise has paterae and bucrania in its metopes. (Figure 5) It should be noted, however, that both Vignola and Palladio were referencing similar ancient versions of the Doric frieze.

Figure 3: Roman sarcophagus, Metropolitan Museum (Loth)

Figure 4: Vignola: Canon of the Five Orders of Architecture, Plate 10 (detail)

The promotion of patera as an architectural ornament continued into the 18th century. The Anglo-Palladian architect, Sir William Chambers, included it in the Doric entablature illustrated in his Treatise on the Decorative Part of Civil Architecture (1759). (Figure 6) Later in the century, Robert and James Adam made extensive use of paterae, particularly richly ornamented ones, in their designs. The Adams showed numerous examples of fancy paterae in The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam (1778, 1822), thus making the patera a fashionable motif in Regency Britain. We may credit the British architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe for some of the earliest uses of the patera to this country. One of his few surviving works to display the motif is the Decatur house in Washington, D.C., completed in 1818. (Figure 7) Here Latrobe decorated the ends of the exterior window lintels with paterae. (Figure 8 )

Figure 5 : Basilica, Vicenza, Italy (Loth)

Figure 6: Chambers: Treatise on the Decorative Parts of Civil Architecture, plate facing p. 47 (detail)

Figure 7: Decatur House, Washington, D.C. (Loth)

Figure 8: Decatur House window lintel (Loth)

In a design for a mantel published in Modern Furnishings for Rooms by W. F. Pocock (London, 1811), we see an early example of the patera as a decoration for corner blocks in an architrave frame. (Figure 9) Pocock treats the architraves not with overlapping fascias but with fluting, as on pilasters. The use of the patera in mantels, and especially door and window frames, became widespread, particularly in mid-19th-century America. The Boston architect, Asher Benjamin popularized such use of the patera in window and door frames in his several pattern books. This treatment gained favor with carpenters since it was easier to make a frame using a corner block instead of a miter joint. The doorframe in Liberia, an 1825 house in Manassas, Virginia, is a typical example, showing symmetrical architraves with patera-decorated corner blocks. (Figure 10) The use of the corner block with patera continued into the early 20th century. The door and window frames in my own house, built ca. 1908, abound with paterae. (Figure 11) Patera-decorated corner blocks are still readily available from most any building supply company. One wonders if the owner of the 1950s house in Beverly Hills, California, is aware that his doorway sports ancient symbols of sacrifice. (Figure 12)

Figure 9: Pocock, Modern Furnishings of Rooms, plate 21 (detail)

Figure 10: doorframe, Liberia, Manassas, VA, (Loth)

Figure 11: doorframe, 202 Granby Street, Richmond, VA (Loth)

Figure 12: doorway, Beverly Hills, CA (Loth)

Calder Loth was the 2010 recipient of ICA&CA’s 2010 Arthur Ross Awards, Board of Directors Honor.

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