What Is a Corinthian Column?

A Steadfast Symbol of Strength

Corinthian Capitals (of clay on left and plaster on right) Recreated for the Facade of Germany's Berliner Schloss
Corinthian Capitals (of clay on left and plaster on right) Recreated for the Facade of Germany's Berliner Schloss. Photo by Sean Gallup / Getty Images News / Getty Images

The word Corinthian describes an ornate column style developed in ancient Greece and classified as one of the Classical Orders of Architecture. The Corinthian style is more complex and elaborate than the earlier Doric and Ionic Orders. The capital or top part of a Corinthian style column has lavish ornamentation carved to resemble leaves and flowers (view image). The Roman architect Vitruvius (c. 70-15 BC) observed that the delicate Corinthian design "was produced out of the two other orders." Vitruvius first documented the Corinthian column, calling it "an imitation of the slenderness of a maiden; for the outlines and limbs of maidens, being more slender on account of their tender years, admit of prettier effects in the way of adornment."

Because of their opulence, Corinthian columns are rarely used as common porch columns for the ordinary home. The style is more suited for Greek Revival mansions, public architecture, and government buildings.

Characteristics of a Corinthian Column:

  • Fluted (grooved) shaft
  • Capital decorated with small scrolls (volutes, as in the Ionic Order), acanthus leaves, and flowers
  • Ornaments on the capital flare outwards, like a bell, suggesting a sense of height
  • A defined proportion. Vitruvius tells us that "the height of their capitals gives them proportionately a taller and more slender effect" than Ionic columns. The ornate capitals are proportioned to the "the entire thickness of the shaft."
  • Corinthian columns are often used in interiors and support arches (view image)

The column along with its entablature make up what is called the Corinthian Order.

Why Is It Called a Corinthian Column?

In De architectura (30 BC), Vitruvius tells the story of the death of a young girl from the city-state of Corinth—"A free-born maiden of Corinth, just of marriageable age, was attacked by an illness and passed away," writes Vitruvius.

She was buried with a basket of her favorite things atop her tomb, near the root of an acanthus tree. That spring, leaves and stalks grew up through the basket, creating a delicate explosion of natural beauty. The effect caught the eye of the passing sculptor, Callimachus.

Are All Corinthian Capitals the Same?

Not exactly, but they are defined by their leafy flowers.

The capitals of Corinthian columns are more ornamented and delicate than the tops of other column types. They can easily deteriorate over time, to be replaced by master craftsmen. In World War II during the 1945 bombing of Berlin, German, the royal palace was heavily damaged and then demolished in the 1950s. With the reunification of East and West Berlin, Berliner Schloss is being reinvented. "Its reconstruction is making Berlin once more the much-loved 'Athens on the Spree'," claims its donation page at berliner-schloss.de. Sculptors are using old photographs to recreate the architectural details of the new facade, noting that all of the Corinthian capitals are not the same.

About the Corinthian Column:

  • The oldest known Corinthian column is thought to be the interior column at the Temple of Apollo Epicurius in Bassai, c. 425 BC
  • Callimachus, a Greek sculptor and architect (c. 425 BC), is thought to be the creator of the Corinthian capital design.
  • The design is named after Corinth, a city in Greece. The people of Corinth are called Corinthians.
  • The Tholos (a round building) at Epidauros (c. 350 BC) is thought to be one of the first structures to use a colonnade of Corinthian columns. Archaeologists have determined the tholos to have 26 exterior Doric columns and 14 interior Corinthian columns.
  • The Monument of Lysikrates (c. 335 BC) in Athens is one of the earliest examples of exterior Corinthian columns.
  • The Temple of Olympian Zeus (175 BC) in Athens was begun by Greeks and finished by Romans. It is said to have had more than a hundred Corinthian columns.

Architectural Styles that use Corinthian Columns:

  • Classical
  • Islamic Architecture: The distinctive capital of the Corinthian column comes in many forms, but the acanthus leaf appears in most designs. Professor Talbot Hamlin suggests that Islamic architecture was influenced by the acanthus leaf design—"Many mosques, like those at Kairouan and Cordova, used actual ancient Corinthian capitals; and later Moslem capitals were often based on the Corinthian scheme in general pattern, although the tendency toward abstraction gradually removed all remaining signs of realism from the carving of the leaves."

Examples of Buildings with Corinthian Columns:

Sources: "Orders, architectural," The Dictionary of Art, Vol. 23, Grove, ed. Jane Turner, 1996, pp. 477-494; The Ten Book on Architecture by Vitruvius, Translated by Morris Hicky Morgan, Book IV, Chapter 1; Architecture through the Ages by Talbot Hamlin, Putnam, Revised 1953, p. 197