Columns and capitals

Does your parish church have columns? We might overlook columns as a boring structural necessity, but there is much more to these elements than meets the eye. Columns have great symbolic importance in religious and secular buildings alike. They can be used to convey authority and dignity, solidity and strength.

Column parts and styles

There are three key parts to any column: the base, the shaft (fut above), and the capital (chapiteau).

Art and Liturgy - Greek column - entasis in action
Entasis in action

Next time you see a column in the wild, take note of the shape of its shaft. It may look perfectly straight from afar, but close up, chances are that it actually curves outward in the middle and tapers near the top. This is a technique known as entasis. A perfectly straight column will appear concave from a distance; entasis corrects this. Archaeologists have discovered that this trick was used as early as 21 centuries before Christ.

Keep an eye out for the three main styles, or orders, of column: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. Here’s a visual comparison:


“Actually, Corinthian columns are topped with stylized acanthus leaves.”

Whole books have been written about the many differences between the orders, and their significance. For now, suffice it to say that we can easily identify the Doric order by its round capital, the Ionic by its loopy capital, and the Corinthian by its crazy, squiggly capital.

Vitruvius, an ancient architect, noted that the Doric style had a “bold and manly” figure, while Ionic columns looked “matronly” and Corinthian columns looked “maidenly.” Accordingly, classical temples dedicated to male gods often featured Doric columns, and so on. In some cases, this scheme carried over to Christian churches, but not always.

There also developed a hierarchy among the three orders, Doric being the most base and Corinthian being the most elegant and refined. Sometimes a building contains multiple styles, seen clearly here at l’Eglise St-Gervais-et-St-Protais in Paris. In Christian churches today, it is desirable to use a higher order in the sanctuary, to visually indicate the importance and solemnity of the liturgical action happening there.

Art and Liturgy - Saint Gervais et Protais Paris

[If you liked this post, you may be interested this excellent column (ha!) in the Sacred Architecture Journal by Dr. Denis McNamara: Built Form of Theology: The Natural Sympathies of Catholicism and Classicism]

Illustrations of column parts and styles by Sarah Woodward. French translation: Salsero35 [CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of St. Gervais-et-Protais by Tangopaso – Own work, Public Domain,