Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Corinthian Order

In comparison to the intellectual and even spiritual encodings that make the Doric and Ionic orders and their Egyptian forebears so resonant, the origins of the Corinthian order, the last of the three classical orders to emerge from Antiquity, is much more clear and its symbolic meaning much more self-evident.

The oldest known Corinthian column was found in the Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae in Arcadia, built by the architect Iktinos (who with Kallikrates designed the Parthenon) and dated to circa 420 BC. Curiously, the temple itself (above, an old photograph, before it was roofed for restoration) is Doric, with the Ionic employed within the cella, where a single, freestanding Corinthian column held pride of place. This unusual placement indicates that the column was likely meant to be a votive column and also makes the temple unique in that its architecture boasts all three of the Ancient orders.

During the next century, the Corinthian order remains an interior embellishment and its first documented exterior use occurs in Athens, at the famed Choragic Monument of Lysicrates (above and below), erected circa 334 BC. The diminutive cylindrical tempietto, raised on a cubic base, was crowned by a bronze tripod, the prize that the patron Lysicrates' choir had won in a competition in the Theatre of Dionysus.

The Greeks did not much care for the Corinthian order and employed it sparsely but the Romans used it for just about everything, and it is a bit surprising that this most practical of people chose the most ornate of the Greek orders to make their own. Doubtless, it was exactly the Corinthian order's inherent decorative qualities that most appealed to them, as well as it being the last and least-employed of the Greek orders. In a word, the Corinthian's malleability was key to its success in Imperial Rome: it could be adapted and embellished and its proportions revisited to suit any situation. (Below, a rare Greek temple using the Corinthian order, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, Athens.)

Vitruvius credits the Corinthian sculptor and architect Callimachus with the order's invention, recounting the story that he was inspired by a grave marker for a wellborn girl left by her nurse (first illustration). She had set a basket upon the grave with a roof tile placed upon it to protect the offerings inside, the girl's favorite objects. In spring, an acanthus grew around the basket, its young stalks pressed into volutes by the overhanging tile. Callimachus happened to stroll by and had a Eureka! moment and the rest, as they say, is history—though likely mostly story.

Callimachus was famed for his bravura sculptural technique and is credited with being the first sculptor to undercut and drill marble to create greater relief in drapery, foliage and hair. The elaborately undercut acanthus foliage and volutes of the Corinthian capital, which demands just such sculptural virtuosity, does indeed argue for his authorship. (Below: an early capital from the Tholos at Epidarius.)

Admittedly, we do also find distant precursors in Assyrian architecture, following the same trail that we did for the Ionic, but the extreme ornamental complexity of the Corinthian order and its reliance on naturalistic acanthus-leaf decoration are sure signs that we should not bother to look too deeply for hidden meanings: the Corinthian is a decorative order, a product of Greece's 'baroque' period. It is a bravura flourish, a complex and contrived ornamental outburst—a self-conscious creation. Indeed it may well be that one of Vitrivius' mundane explanations finally happens to be true.


  1. Naturally I find this interesting!

  2. I must tell you dahhling.. of the three I think I like this one the best. Perhaps because there is a little more drama in the design?

  3. I love the story about the origin of the Corinthian and the girls grave. Thank you for another inspiring and fascinating post.