Inside or outside, architectural columns make a regal impression, and if you’re a fan then you’ve noticed how many different styles there are.
Smooth, fluted, round, square and everything in between – there are many different designs, and they all have their place in history. If you ever have occasion to add a little column decor here or there, this primer might help you pick the perfect one for the place and period.
Anatomy of a Column
First, we should get familiar with architectural columns. Let’s start at the top and work our way down:
Abacus: This is the (usually) square, flat slab of stone that’s wedged between the capital and the structure being supported by the column.
Capital: The capital is the ornate topmost part of the column, which is often flared to help better distribute the weight bearing down on the abacus.
Shaft: The long part.
Base (or Pedestal): The piece at the bottom that holds it all up, which is usually also flared to provide more support.
Column Types I: Classical Orders
Columns are an ancient creation and have been well-documented for at least two thousand years; far enough back to trace the original designs in wood, before stone-carving of that magnitude became common.
Thanks to this documentation, we now have the “classical orders” of columns, which are Composite, Corinthian, Doric, Ionic, Solomonic and Tuscan.
Composite: As the name suggests, these columns are a blend of orders, specifically Corinthian and Ionic capitals. It’s often hard to tell, though, and so many of these columns get lumped in with one or the other of its combined styles.
Corinthian: These columns feature elaborately carved capitals, often using floral designs, and are among the most well-proportioned column styles. They are also some of the most easily identifiable.
Doric: The Doric order is the oldest among the five stone column orders, dating as far back as 800 BC. It was originally designed to provide support without a base, and was distinguished by its concave grooves, or flutes.
Ionic: Also easily identified by a scrolled capital and fluted shaft, the Ionic column is a popular style found on many American government buildings.
Solomonic: Popular in the Middle Ages, these columns are more distinct than others because they look like twisted breadsticks.
Column Types II: Carved Statues
The classical orders are very cool, no doubt, but even more striking are the stone columns carved into recognizable forms. Animals are far less common, but the male and female forms have been used frequently throughout history and into the present day.
Caryatid: A column carved into the female form, named by the Greeks after the maidens of the goddess Artemis.
Atlas (or Telamon): The caryatid’s male counterpart, also named by the Greeks after the titular Titan, often depicted in myth as holding up the world.