Know Your 'Capitals'

Posted by Pattern Cut on 11/25/2014 to Columns, Capitals & Features
Modern architecture owes a number of building concepts from the ancient Greeks; one of the most enduring is the use of ‘capitals.’ Derived from the Latin 'caput' meaning ‘head’, capitals are located at the topmost portion of a column and help spread the load that thrusts down upon the former. More than their structural utility, capitals are also highly utilized for their decorative attributes. Today, capitals are often used for ornamentation purposes. 

Here’s an overview of the three major Greek capitals, their uses and the structures that exemplify them best.


The oldest Greek style, or order, that guided the building philosophy and principles of ancient builders is the Doric. Given their simplicity and massiveness, Doric capitals found plenty of use in supporting heavy-set buildings, the most famous of which is the Parthenon. The Doric order is easily distinguishable from its counterparts because of its lack of ornamentation, with the capitals often built plain with a rounded section at the bottom and a square at the top, a very 'masculine' look when compared to other Greek orders.


Developed in the Ionian islands in the 6th century BC, Ionic capitals have more delicate or feminine form compared to the 'muscular' Doric order. Ionic capitals are also easily identified with their 'scrolls' on either side which are called volutes (whose design was inspired by animal horns and nautilus shells). Because Ionic capitals tend to be slimmer and delicate, they are often used in smaller buildings and interiors, like those used in the small temple dedicated to the Athena Nike at the entrance to the Acropolis.


The most elaborately decorated capital is Corinthian, the most prevalent theme of which is the use of acanthus leaves. (Greeks believed that the perennial acanthus plant symbolized life emerging from death.) Despite its close association with Greek architecture, however, Corinthian capitals were not heavily utilized in ancient Greek building projects, although the recurring motif of acanthus leaves saw revival during the era of the Byzantine Empire and the Renaissance. The two tiers of acanthus leaves that adorn Corinthian capitals are best exemplified by the 5th century temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae. This UNESCO-listed temple is said to contain the oldest Corinthian capital yet found.

It is altogether possible to combine the three capitals and come up with a Composite Order, as in the Arch of Titus, which featured Ionic volutes and Corinthian acanthus leaves. This honorific arch, located in Rome’s Via Sacra, inspired a more modern triumphal arch, Paris’ Arc de Triomphe. 

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