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The Ox-Eye Window

by Chrysanthi Zouroudi*

Source: EGEO Exotiko

“…after they constructed the triangle part of the roof, they placed an ornament right in its middle so that it does not look plain…”

This is all left to be said today by the local Symi constructors, about one of the finest and most aristocratic features characteristic of Symi’s architectural paradise: the “ox-eye” window, whose roots can be traced in the eminent buildings of the Italian Renaissance.

Horio – Yialos, are the two fundamental parts of Symi’s settlement. Buildings of Neoclassical architecture strewn together in unity, create one of the most beautiful, highly maintained island settlements of Greece. Set in the rocky mountains amphitheatrically, two storey mansions in a variety of colours, are framed against the barren landscape in a manner that gives the impression that they have sprang from seed; thus creating a unique whole.

During the Byzantine period the settlement was located in the perimeter of Virgin Mary of the Castle, while it also acted as a fort (remnants of the buildings are still to be found today). These buildings were basic, with flat roofs, in typical island fashion and in particular that of the Cyclades.

Derived from Italian architecture, it is the well known “Oculus” or “Occhio di Bue”, that is to say the “ox’s eye”. A widely spread pattern found in the pediments of royal Italian palaces of the Renaissance, in particular in the buildings of Brunelleschi, Alberti and Maderna, as well as in Palladio’s architecture (ex Villa Rotonda). The need for its existence in the buildings of that period was great, mainly due to the weight decrease within the structure, making thus the building more stable and more resistant.

Architecture aside, the expression “ox’s eye”, or “Occhio di Bue” contains other meanings, in particular in Italy, even in our days where it is symbolic of a good luck charm and generally good luck. Besides, within Christian religious symbolism, the ox is a symbol of St Lukas (St Luke), expressing strength and also patience. However, according to popular belief, the affect as well as adoration of an animal’s eye stems from antiquity and mainly from Minoan Crete; a simple reference in Greece of today, is that of the “evil eye”. Perhaps this is how it was transferred into architecture, to symbolize protection against evil for the home and their owners.

Apart from Symi, the “ox’s eye”, can be seen in the buildings of other Dodecanese islands, like Kalymnos, Karpathos and Rhodes. The use of skylight thus in the islands’ buildings, is an indication of the influence exerted, as well as contributed by the families with a naval or commercial background.

In the next few centuries the island experienced substantial growth. Shipping and ship building were developed as well as sponge diving, art and literature and commerce. Later on in the 19th century, the European Neoclassical Style exerted a strong influence on the island’s architecture. Responsible for this new trend in the Dodecanese islands, were tradesmen and seamen traveling the Mediterranean. It was also a period of great prosperity for the island. Symi, due to its significant shipping power, succeeded in gaining a number of privileges from the Turks.

Thus, the buildings were strictly based on the design and the rules dictated by the Neoclassical Style. The blocks were created in accordance with the Neoclassical models, and the composition and proportion of the facades were derived from the fundamental principles of Euclid’s geometry (the golden section). The roof, one or two or four side sloping, became one of the few architectural features of the island’s buildings.

Symbolic of the new building model that was part of the modern European character, buildings of a two sided sloping roof, bore a particular architectural feature. This involves the pattern of a circular skylight in the middle of the pediment, whose value is both ornamental as well as functional: the so called “ox’s eye”.

During the Italian occupation of the Dodecanese (1912-1948), and with the appearance of the European Modern Movement, the circular opening can be seen yet once more; usually in the form of a large window in Italian Rationalist buildings, especially in Kos and Rhodes.

Coming back to the Neoclassical buildings of Symi, it is important to distinguish the basic features of the “ox’s eye”. The circular opening of the skylight in its simpler design is constituted of a cross or a rodace, sculpted in the form of flowers or stars. In a number of buildings, the rodace constitutes of the central part of an elaborate embellishment, reminiscent of an intricate lace. At other times, the “ox’s eye” does not function as an opening, but solely as a jewel in the wall. Even more rarely, the skylight is of a triangular or rectangular shape, while at other times it depicts some human form.

The skylight also plays an important role for the roof’s effective function, mainly protecting it against the wind, since the opening operates as an air pressure balancer (both above as well as underneath the roof), thus stopping roof tiles from getting loose in high winds. Also, it helps towards the airing of the internal space right under the roof, usually an auxiliary, as well as reduces its structural weight.

Today in Symi, building standards and regulations allow buildings to become listed as part of the dominant Neoclassical style. However, today’s needs in buildings’ architecture have changed. New ways, as well as new building materials are being used for their structure. Thus, the “ox’s eye”, has now lost its initial significance. In most cases new buildings get built without the inclusion of the “ox’s eye”. However, the few of the times the “ox’s eye” is included, it serves mainly as a decorative feature.

* Chrysanthi Zouroudi is a Qualified Architect Engineer of NTUA.

Text © EGEO Exotiko

Photos ©


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(1) Comments

  1. lizzykitch said on 06/11/2011, 11:28

    Very interesting, thank you xx

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