Ornament is any accessory used to adorn, beautify, or embellish. It can apply to almost every field in the arts: furniture, attire, architecture, and even music. The word is derived from the classical Latin word ornare, which means to equip. The word is partly Anglo-Norman and Middle French, circa 1050. In the past it had multiple spellings and pronunciations, such as: hournement, ournament, urnament, and ornament.
Ornament, in architecture and the decorative arts, is a quality that has been apparent since recorded history. Ancient Egypt was the first civilization to add pure decoration to their buildings. Ornament for them was meant to show honor towards the gods. It was only meant for places of cultural significance and temples for the gods. They also believed that ornament should relate to the natural environment. In their buildings, they would model the columns after papyrus, palms, and lotus plants. Over time, the use and purpose of ornament developed from the Ancient Egyptian concept.
The ancient Greek’s drew from the Egyptian Concept of Ornament with its purpose to show respect for the gods and draw inspiration from nature. In Greece, ornament was still primarily used for temples and select social sites. The connection of the word ornament to worship was not as prominent in the Roman culture. The Romans tended to focus less on religious structures and more on public or civic ones. However, the Romans associated the word ornament with grandeur and opulence. They used ornament purely for decoration, displaying their pride and power.
In Medieval times, ornament was again associated with religion and was also now used as a form of communication. Ornament in the form of sculptures and engravings were critical for telling biblical stories to those who could not read. During the Renaissance, ornament shifted focus again from religion to reason. This brought about the classical ideals of geometry, proportion, and simplicity. The classical usage of the word ornament was seen again during the neo-classical and Greek revival periods. However, now ornament included and was generally associated with the decoration of domestic buildings.
In the Modern and Post modern movements, ornament, as it was previously known, was rarely used. The lack of ornamental detailing became a common aesthetic choice in architecture. During these periods ornament became connected with the structure of the building. Few details were added to buildings; instead decoration was done through the forms of the building and the materials used.
Ornament has been present all throughout history as means of artistic expression and has kept this general meaning throughout time. Ornament’s usage and associate has altered slightly and frequently throughout history with different architectural, artistic, and historical movements.
"Orn Definition." Oxford English Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2012. <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/132621>.
"Ornament (Architecture)." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2012. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/432912/ornament>.
"Ornament Definition." Home : Oxford English Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2012. <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/132624?rskey=uud04g>.