All About the Corinthian Column

A Steadfast Symbol of Strength

Detail of tops of corinthean columns
The Regal Look of the Corinthean Column. Photo by Marje/E+ Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

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. 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 and public architecture such as government buildings, especially related to courts and laws.

Characteristics of a Corinthian Column

  • Fluted (grooved) shaft
  • Capitals (the top of the shaft) decorated with  acanthus leaves and flowers, sometimes decorated with small scrolls (volutes, as in the Ionic Order)
  • 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

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

Why Is It Called a Corinthian Column?

In the world's first architecture textbook, 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 a passing sculptor named Callimachus, who began to incorporate the intricate design onto column capitals. The people of Corinth are called Corinthians, so the name is attributed to where Callimachus first saw the image.

West of Corinth in Greece is the Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae, thought to be the oldest surviving example of the Classical Corinthian column. This temple architecture from about 425 BC is a UNESCO World Heritage site, which cites the architecture to be a model for all Corinthian "monuments of Greek, Roman and subsequent civilisations."

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 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.

Are All Corinthian Capitals the Same?

No, not all Corinthian capitals are exactly alike, but they are characterized 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, especially when they are used outdoors. Early Corinthian columns were used primarily for interiors spaces, and thus were protected from the elements. The Monument of Lysikrates (c. 335 BC) in Athens is one of the earliest examples of exterior Corinthian columns.

Replacing deteriorated Corinthian capitals must be accomplished 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, in clay and in plaster, noting that all of the Corinthian capitals are not the same.

Architectural Styles That Use Corinthian Columns

The Corinthian column and the Corinthian Order were created in ancient Greece. Ancient Greek and Roman architecture is collectively called Classical, and, so, Corinthian columns are found in Classical architecture. The Arch of Constantine (315 AD) in Rome and the Ancient Library of Celsus in Ephesus are examples of Corinthian columns in Classical architecture.

Classical architecture, including Classical columns, was "reborn" during the Renaissance Movement in the 15th and 16th centuries. Later derivatives of Classical architecture include the Neoclassical, Greek Revival, and Neoclassical Revival architectures of the 19th century, and the Beaux Arts architecture of the American Gilded Age. Thomas Jefferson was influential in bringing the Neoclassical style to America, as seen on the Rotunda at The University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Corinthian-like designs can also be found in some 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

Corinthian columns can be made from wood, but most often they are made from stone to express a delicate but lasting sculptural beauty in lofty, regal structures. In the United States, specific buildings with these columns include the U.S. Supreme Court Building, the U.S. Capitol, and the National Archives Building, all in Washington, DC. In New York City look to the New York Stock Exchange Building on Broad Street in Lower Manhattan and the James A. Farley Building, across the street from Penn Station and Madison Square Garden.

In Rome, Italy check out the Pantheon and the Colosseum in Rome, where Doric columns are on the first level, Ionic columns on the second level, and Corinthian columns on the third level. Great Renaissance cathedrals throughout Europe are apt to show off their Corinthian columns, including St, Paul's Cathedral and St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, United Kingdom.

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
  • Inline illustration by Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images; photo of columns supporting arches by Michael Interisano/Design Pics Collection/Getty Images; photo of new capitals for Berliner Schloss by Sean Gallup/Getty Images; photo of UVA Rotunda by Mondadori Portfolio/Hulton Fine Art Collection/Getty Images