1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Capital (architecture)

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CAPITAL (Lat. caput, head), in architecture, the crowning member of the column, which projects on each side as it rises, in order to support the abacus and unite the square form of the latter with the circular shaft. The bulk of the capital may either be convex, as in the Doric capital; concave, as in the bell of the Corinthian capital; or bracketed out, as in the Ionic capital. These are the three principal types on which all capitals are based. The capitals of Greek, Doric, Ionic and Corinthian orders are given in the article Order.

From the prominent position it occupies in all monumental buildings, it has always been the favourite feature selected for ornamentation, and consequently it has become the clearest indicator of any style.

The two earliest capitals of importance are those which are based on the lotus (fig. 1) and papyrus (fig. 2) plants respectively, and these, with the palm tree capital, were the chief types employed by the Egyptians down to the 3rd century b.c., when, under the Ptolemaic dynasties, various river plants were employed decoratively and the lotus capital goes through various modifications (fig. 3) Some kind of volute capital is shown in the Assyrian bas-reliefs, but no Assyrian capital has ever been found, those exhibited as such in the British Museum are bases.

 EB1911 Capital Fig. 1 Lotus Capital from Karnak.jpg EB1911 Capital Fig. 2 Papyrus Capital from Karnak.jpg
Fig. 1.—Lotus Capital from Karnak. Fig.—2 Papyrus Capital from Karnak.

The Persian capital belongs to the third class above mentioned, the brackets are carved with the lion (fig. 4) or the griffin projecting right and left to support and lessen the bearing of the architrave, and on their backs carry other brackets at right angles to support the cross timbers. The profuse decoration underneath the bracket capital in the palace of Xerxes and elsewhere, serves no structural function, but gives some variety to the extenuated shaft.

EB1911 Capital Fig. 4 Persian Capital from Persepolis.jpg
Fig. 3.—Modified Lotus Capital from Philae.  Fig. 4.—Persian Capital from Persepolis.

EB1911 Capital Fig. 5 Early Greek Capital from the Tomb of Agamemnon, Mycenae.jpg
Fig. 5.—Early Greek Capital from the Tomb of Agamemnon, Mycenae.

The earliest Greek capital is that shown in the Temple-fresco at Cnossus in Crete (1600 b.c.); it was of the first type—convex, and was probably moulded in stucco: the second is represented by the richly carved example of the columns (fig 5) flanking the tomb of Agamemnon in Mycenae (c. 1100 b.c.), also convex, carved with the chevron device, and with an apophyge on which the buds of some flowers are sculptured. The Doric capital of the temple of Apollo at Syracuse (c. 700 b.c.) follows, in which the echinus moulding has become a more definite form: this in the Parthenon reaches its culmination, where the convexity is at the top and bottom with a delicate uniting curve The sloping side of the echinus becomes flatter in the later examples, and in the Colosseum at Rome forms a quarter round.

EB1911 Capital Fig. 6 Corinthian Capital from the Tholos of Epidaurus.jpg
 Fig. 6.—Corinthian Capital from the Tholos of Epidaurus.

EB1911 Capital Fig. 7.—Roman Capital from the Temple of Mars Ultor, Rome.jpg
Fig. 7.—Roman Capital from the Temple of Mars Ultor, Rome.

In the Ionic capital of the Archaic temple of Diana at Ephesus (560 b.c.) the width of the abacus is twice that of its depth, consequently the earliest Ionic capital known was virtually a bracket capital. A century later, in the temple on the Ilissus, published in Stuart and Revett, the abacus has become square. One of the most beautiful Corinthian capitals is that from the Tholos of Epidaurus (400 b.c.) (fig. 6); it illustrates the transition between the earlier Greek capital of Bassae and the Roman version of the temple of Mars Ultor (fig. 7).

The foliage of the Greek Corinthian capital was based on the Acanthus spinosus, that of the Roman on the Acanthus mollis; the capital of the temple of Vesta and other examples at Pompeii are carved with foliage of a different type.

Byzantine capitals are of endless variety; the Roman composite capital would seem to have been the favourite type they followed at first: subsequently, the block of stone was left rough as it came from the quarry, and the sculptor, set to carve it, evolved new types of design to his own fancy, so that one rarely meets with many repetitions of the same design. One of the most remarkable is the capital in which the leaves are carved as if blown by the wind; the finest example being in Sta Sophia, Thessalonica; those in St Mark’s, Venice (fig. 8) specially attracted Ruskin’s fancy. Others are found in St Apollinare-in-classe, Ravenna. The Thistle and Pine capital is found in St Mark’s, Venice; St Luke’s, Delphi; the mosques of Kairawan and of Ibn Tūlūn, Cairo, in the two latter cases being taken from Byzantine churches. The illustration of the capital in S. Vitale, Ravenna (figs. 9 and 10) shows above it the dosseret required to carry the arch, the springing of which was much wider than the abacus of the capital.

EB1911 Capital Fig. 8.—Byzantine Capitals from the central portal of St Mark’s, Venice.jpg
 Fig. 8.—Byzantine Capitals from the central portal of St Mark’s, Venice.


EB1911 Capital Fig. 9.—Byzantine Capital from the Church of S. Vitale, Ravenna.jpg EB1911 Capital Fig. 10.—Byzantine Capital from the Church of S. Vitale, Ravenna.jpg
 Fig. 9.—Byzantine Capital from the  Fig. 10.—Byzantine Capital from
 Church of S. Vitale, Ravenna.  the Church of S. Vitale, Ravenna.


 EB1911 Capital Fig. 11.—Cushion Capital.jpg EB1911 Capital Fig. 12.—Romanesque Capitals from the Cloister of Monreale, Sicily.jpg
Fig. 11.—Cushion Capital. Fig. 12.—Romanesque Capitals from the
 Cloister of Monreale, near Palermo, Sicily.

The Romanesque and Gothic capitals throughout Europe present the same variety as in the Byzantine and for the same reason, that the artist evolved his conception of the design from the block he was carving, but in these styles it goes further on account of the clustering of columns and piers.


EB1911 Capital Fig. 13.—Gothic Capitals from Wells Cathedral.jpg
 Fig. 13.—Gothic Capitals from Wells Cathedral.

The earliest type of capital in Lombardy and Germany is that which is known as the cushion-cap, in which the lower portion of the cube block has been cut away to meet the circular shaft (fig. 11). These early types were generally painted at first with various geometrical designs, afterwards carved.

In Byzantine capitals, the eagle, the lion and the lamb are occasionally carved, but treated conventionally.


EB1911 Capital Fig. 14.—Gothic Capitals from Amiens Cathedral.jpg
 Fig. 14.—Gothic Capitals from Amiens Cathedral.

In the Romanesque and Gothic styles, in addition to birds and beasts, figures are frequently introduced into capitals, those in the Lombard work being rudely carved and verging on the grotesque; later, the sculpture reaches a higher standard; in the cloisters of Monreale (fig. 12) the birds being wonderfully true to nature. In England and France (figs. 13 and 14), the figures introduced into the capitals are sometimes full of character. These capitals, however, are not equal to those of the Early English school, in which the foliage is conventionally treated as if it had been copied from metal work, and is of infinite variety, being found in small village churches as well as in cathedrals.


EB1911 Capital Fig. 15.—Italian Renaissance Capital from S. Maria dei Miracoli, Venice.jpg
 Fig.15.—Italian Renaissance Capital from
  S. Maria dei Miracoli, Venice.

Reference has only been made to the leading examples of the Roman capitals; in the Renaissance period (fig. 15) the feature became of the greatest importance and its variety almost as great as in the Byzantine and Gothic styles. The pilaster, which was employed so extensively in the Revival, called for new combinations in the designs for its capitals. Most of the ornament can be traced to Roman sources, and although less vigorous, shows much more delicacy and refinement in its carving.  (R. P. S.)