The term is used broadly to describe a decorative horizontal band running along the top of a wall inside or outside a building. It can also describe the decoration on the body of a vase or a decorative band along a piece of furniture.
Friezes are not unique to any one place or period. They appear on Indian temples, Egyptian and Mayan pyramids, and in a variety of building styles. Friezes may sometimes be left plain. They can also be ‘pulvinated’, meaning convex. In many cases, they will be flat and decorated with repetitive patterns, letters, plants, festooning, animals, mythological creatures, human figures, or other design elements. Due to their length, they also lend themselves to illustrating processions and narratives. Friezes can be executed in many different materials, from painting and sculptural reliefs to plaster mouldings, tiles, mosaic, textiles and wallpaper.
Friezes play an important part in conveying the meanings of public buildings and monuments. Perhaps the most famous example is the 160-metre-long marble frieze designed by the sculptor Phidias (about 480-430 BC) which ran around the top of the inner structure of the Parthenon (447-432 BC) in Athens. It is generally thought to represent Athenians taking part in a ritual procession to honour Athena, their city’s patron goddess to whom the Parthenon is dedicated.
The painted frieze in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (1897-98) by William Brassey Hole (1846-1917) occupies the space above the columns of the Great Hall. The frieze brings together a selection of key figures of Scottish history. Hole utilises the frieze format to suggest a reverse-chronological procession bookended by nineteenth-century writer Thomas Carlyle and characters representing the Stone Age. They progress towards the central figure of Caledonia, a personification of Scotland. This timeline of the history of Scotland is marked by the people who shaped it, reflecting the aims of the Portrait Gallery as it was conceived in the nineteenth century.
Another processional frieze spans the five walls of the shrine inside the Scottish National War Memorial (1924-7) which houses the Rolls of Honour. This low-relief bronze sculpture was one of several collaborations between sculptor Gertrude Alice Meredith Williams (1877-1934) and her husband Morris Meredith Williams (1881-1973), who produced the detailed preparatory cartoons. They show an example of every rank and unit in which Scottish people had served in the First World War, and of every weapon and piece of equipment employed. Many of these details were based on sketches which Morris Meredith Williams drew during his service on the Western Front. Rather than being raised high above the viewers’ heads as the Parthenon frieze was, this frieze encourages a moment of personal reflection on individual experiences and sacrifices during the war as it brings the viewer almost to eye level with the figures.
Friezes can be infused with different styles, from classical to Art Nouveau: Glasgow Girl Jessie Marion King (1875-1949) embraced the format’s potential for suggesting narrative progression and integrated a frieze with scenes from the fairy tale The Frog Prince into her linear, nature-inspired design for a child’s nursery.
From the fifteenth century onwards, friezes found their way into print, too. Ornament prints depict designs for friezes and other ornamental elements. They could be translated by craftspeople like woodcarvers and stonemasons into the decorative arts.
The use of friezes fell out of favour as modernist architecture stripped away decorative elements. Historical friezes continue to provide researchers with important information about the significance of buildings and changing decorative tastes. Their diversity attests to the fact that friezes are a blank canvas on which an artist or architect may directly communicate with the viewer. They can act as a meeting point between painting, sculpture and architecture.