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Egyptian columns with capitals depicting the face of the goddess Hathor
Corinthian column

A column is a vertical , free-standing pillar , a support made of wood , stone , brick or metal with a round or polygonal cross-section . It differs from the half-column and the three-quarter column and the pilaster in its cross-section . It differs from the round pillar because it is designed as a supporting member with a taper and sometimes with an entasis . Columns can support the entablature , vaults or arcades of a building and thereby partially or completely replace the walls .

However, they can also only be used for decoration, carry a votive offering or even stand alone as a monument .

In classical Greek, classical Roman and modern architecture, the assignment of columns and associated entablature was determined by a system of five column orders. This system was the mandatory architectural design canon until the beginning of the twentieth century. The medieval architecture of Europe developed its own design methods for columns, but these were discarded after architectural studies on ancient relics were taken up from the 16th century and ancient architecture was taken as a model.

Components of a classic column

Figure 1: Elements of a Corinthian column (please click on the picture for a description)

Traditionally, a column is divided into three parts: The shaft rests on the column foot, the base , and is crowned by a capital . The column shaft is the only statically necessary component of a column. The remaining structural elements have mainly decorative tasks. In many architectural styles, the combination of base, shaft and capital forms fixed column orders that allow little variation.


The base, if present, is often divided into two parts in the classic column arrangements in a lower square plate, the plinth . It distributes the load on the column over a larger area. In rare cases, the plinth is decorated with ornaments or leaf motifs. Further horizontal panels can rest on it, which serve to visually structure the base. The cross section of the actual base is round. A series of grooves, Trochilus , and beads, torus , divides the base body and determines its profile. The number and sequence of the throats and bulges is usually determined typologically, depending on the Ephesian , Sami , Attic , Peloponnesian or composite base, to name just a few examples.

In Figure 1, the base stands on a stepped substructure, the stereobat or the Krepis . Its top level is called stylobate . Columns can also - especially from Hellenism onwards - stand on a mostly cubic base or pedestal . Such a raised base is often used when the full size of the column would appear too bulky, for example in the case of colossal multi-storey orders , but also in smaller colonnaded halls or peristyles .


The shaft of a column can be made monolithically from one part, but in the case of larger columns it is usually composed of several so-called column drums. In antiquity, the bearing surfaces of the drums were usually made plane-parallel and provided with anathyrosis in the edge area in order to ensure the greatest possible stability through absolute joint closure. In archaic times, the column drums were connected by a central long wooden dowel in lead encapsulation. From the 5th century BC Multi-part dowel shapes appeared, which consisted of bronze inlet pieces, mostly square cross-sections, embedded in the center of the drum, which in turn received wooden or metal dowels and thus connected the drums. In the 4th century BC This dowel shape was replaced by round central dowels, mostly made of metal in lead encapsulation, to which disc dowels or iron spikes were added on the sides.

The shaft can also be made of so-called shaped bricks. Shank shapes that taper towards the top are used almost everywhere, and this tapering is a fundamental distinguishing feature compared to the simple round pillar. The exceptions include the Cretan columns of the Minoan culture , the shafts of which taper downwards. In the case of columns from classical antiquity , the shaft has, in addition to the taper, a slight, apparent curvature, the entasis . This curvature never exceeds the lower column diameter. Rather, the tapering of the column does not follow a linear course, but the section of an arc of a circle, so that the tapering accelerates after about a third of the height.

The most important decoration of the shaft in the Doric , Ionic and Corinthian order is the fluting . While the fluting of Doric columns meet with a sharp ridge, a narrow bar separates the fluting of Ionic and Corinthian columns. Often from the Hellenism onwards, the shafts can only be partially fluted or faceted, or the flutes were filled with round rods. Sometimes, however, only the separating webs were placed on the shaft, as can be seen, for example, in the case of stucco-decorated columns at the gymnasium in Olympia . In the case of ionic columns in particular, the base of the shaft can bear figural reliefs , the so-called columnae caelatae . Alexandrian shafts are often adorned with acanthus leaf tendrils at the base of the shaft. Tuscan column shafts, on the other hand, are completely unadorned and fluted. However, other styles are particularly rich in decoration on the shaft. Columns of the Byzantine , Romanesque and Gothic architecture, but also the German Renaissance, are often covered with geometric or organic ornaments. The possibility of simply leaving the shaft in the work inch with lifting bosses goes back to ancient models , an intentional, only apparent incompletion.

The approach with the associated profile plate at the transition to the base as well as the drain , plate and astragalus at the upper end of the shaft were often seen as part of the shaft in antiquity - depending on the building code - but where it was possible, they were abandoned in favor of a simplified stone cut . Approach and expiry were then incorporated into the base or the capital.


The column head, the so-called capital, lies between the shaft and the entablature . Ancient architecture knows, among many others, three basic forms of the capital: the Doric , the Ionic and the Corinthian capital .

The column neck, the hypotrachelion , is located between the capital and the shaft , usually separated from the shaft by rings or notches. It mediates optically between the components and can be decorated with ornaments, for example a leaf or egg stick .

The central body of the capital is formed differently depending on the column order, it can simply be shaped as a bulge-like cushion, the echinus of the Doric capitals, as a volute-bearing cushion as in the Ionic order or as a leaf-decorated chalice, for example on Corinthian capitals. In addition, there are numerous other possibilities for capital formation.

A square, sometimes ornamentally decorated plate, the abacus , forms the upper end of the capital. It forms the support for the following entablature. When the column carries no horizontal beams, but an arc or a vault, may be on the abacus another, trapezoidal cantilevered member, the fighter ( Impost ). Above all, it has a static function because it directs the pressure of the vault onto the center of the column and thus protects the corners of the capital.

History of the pillar shapes

Egyptian columns

Egyptian column with closed papyrus bundle capital; Temple of Medinet Habu (Thebes-West)

The oldest columns are preserved in Egypt . Although they are made of hewn stone, they imitate shapes such as those created when building with reed . Column halls ( hypostyle ), for example in the Luxor temple or the temple of Dendera , were supported by monumental columns. The very massive looking columns were richly painted with hieroglyphs and sculptures.

There are four types of pillars: lotus pillars , the capital of which resembles a stylized lotus flower ; Papyrus pillars that appear to be wrapped in strips of papyrus , as well as palm pillars , the capitals of which resemble palm leaves . The neck and capital imitate bundles of twigs or reeds girded around them. The capital is either closed like a bud and tapers towards the top (closed capital) or widens in a goblet shape (open capital). Cube capitals decorated with the faces of gods were also used. In addition there are the Protodoric columns, which got their name because of their similarity to the “Doric” column (e.g. in Deir el-Bahari from the time of Hatshepsut ). Since the (subdivided) abacus often replaces the capital here, they are also called abacus columns .

Babylonian, Assyrian, Persian columns

Pillars in Persepolis

The pillars that were found in Assyria , Babylonia and Persia in the centuries around 500 BC. Were used can be seen as pre-forms of the Greek columnar forms; however, some of them were also imported directly from Greece. Slender, high columns with fluting , crowned by uniformly designed capitals, are already popular here. The Persian volutes were probably brought to Persepolis by Ionic builders . Other surviving capitals are shaped with horse or bull heads.

Greco-Roman column orders

An overview of the ancient column orders

The order of columns in addition to proportioning, design and ornamentation of classical columns also includes their position to one another and to the rest of the building, as well as the consequent arrangement of the timbers and its execution.

The Tuscan order is a Roman-Latin variant of the Doric order with mostly non-fluted column shaft and a base.

The Doric order is the oldest of the Greek column orders . It has comparatively compact columns, clearly tapering towards the top, with clear entasis and mostly 20 fluting. The column stands directly on the substructure, the stylobate, without a base. The shaft has at least one horizontally circumferential notch at the upper end and has a capital divided into three areas, consisting of the hypotrachelion , the inconspicuous, also fluted column neck, the echinus, a bulbous pillow, and the abacus , the final square cover plate on the the entablature rests.

Classic capitals

The Ionic order has slimmer columns that are only slightly tapered. The fluting, separated by webs, has 20 to 24 fillets and ends in a curve just before the base and head of the column. You stand on a base. The column's capital is more complex than the Doric and forms a double spiral shape, the volutes .

The Corinthian order did not develop until relatively late in the 5th century BC. Initially consisting only of the Corinthian capital, which was placed on an Ionic column shaft and base, it was only acquired in the 1st century BC. The status of a self-contained column order. Before that, it could be combined with Ionic or Doric entablature. From the 1st century BC The solution with ionic entablature and a crowning console geison as a fixed combination prevails. Deviations from this with Doric entablature are now locally limited or reserved for the small architecture. The Corinthian columns are even slimmer and taller than Ionic columns; under the floral volutes of its capital there are also two wreaths of acanthus leaves .

As Kompositordnung in connection with orders of columns is defined as the combination of a largely Corinthian entablature wrong with the composite capital, which is a fusion of leaf wreath Corinthian capitals with volutes ionic Diagonalkapitelle. The composite capital, which was first developed in Roman times, is richly decorated and has larger volutes than those found on Corinthian capitals.

See also: Greek architecture , Roman architecture

Romanesque columns

Romanesque column row ( Canterbury Cathedral )

Romanesque columns have a base that has a square base and which is transformed into a circular top. The triangular gussets that arise are sometimes decorated with leaf shapes ( corner leaves ) or figures. The shaft is sometimes twisted in a spiral or decorated with diamond patterns, etc. (e.g. Durham Cathedral (England), altar of the Church of San Salvador de Cantamuda (Castile)). The beast columns represent a peculiar and extremely rare Romanesque column shape , the shaft of which is partially or completely covered or replaced by animal figures - examples preserved in Germany are the "beast column" in the hall crypt of the Freising Cathedral as well as columns and pillars with relief representations in the cloister south wing the collegiate church in Berchtesgaden .

In Romanesque rows of columns, importance is often attached to the fact that columns and capitals are individually designed. The capital of Romanesque columns, like the base, is cube-shaped, with the lower edges being rounded to connect to the circular cross-section of the column. Romanesque capitals are often decorated with figures or foliage. Romanesque, but also Gothic cloisters or colonnades often have double rows of columns. In the Christian basilica buildings, the Romanesque column was increasingly displaced by the pillar in the Gothic style .

Double columns and rows of columns

Columns arranged in pairs or in groups of three and four as well as the rows of columns in a portico or on a portal wall are considered statically mostly superfluous, but particularly representative . Both occurred occasionally in antiquity and increasingly in medieval cloisters or in the portal zones of churches and experienced a new heyday in the architecture of the Renaissance and Baroque .

Solomonic columns

José Benito de Churriguera - Altarpiece in the Convento de San Esteban in Salamanca , Spain (1692)
Facade of the Santa Prisca Church in Taxco , Mexico (1751–1758)

"Solomonic columns" are columns rotated around a fictitious inner axis, with which the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem was equipped according to tradition .

The reliefs of the Trajan Column and the Marcus Aurelius Column in Rome were also arranged in a spiral and many Roman columns were provided with twisted canals (e.g. at the Segobriga theater ). A few Romanesque columns are twisted around one another or also have spiral-shaped ornamentation (e.g. in the Cathedral of Durham or on the altar of the Church of San Salvador de Cantamuda ).

But even in antiquity there were pillars whose shafts were rotated around an inner axis; some copies have been preserved in St. Peter's Basilica . In the French and Spanish architectural theory of the 16th century (represented by Jacques Androuet Ducerceau and Juan Bautista Villalpando ) this idea is taken up again and a “Solomonic column order” is postulated (→ web link). Ultimately, however, it was Gianlorenzo Bernini who, with his canopy over the tomb of Peter in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome , created in 1624, created the model for a multitude of rotated columns from the Baroque period. a. in the churrigerersque style of Spain and the colonial baroque based on it play an important role both on portal facades and on altarpieces .


Turned columns in the Hoysala Temple of Halebidu , Karnataka

Unfortunately, research in the history of architecture has so far hardly dealt with the production method of stone columns and so much has been forgotten. The forerunners of stone pillars were certainly wooden pillars that were ground and smoothed in a kind of lathe . It can be assumed that such techniques were also used with many stone columns, because after initial rough processing in the quarry , a uniform rounding, smoothing or even turning of the surface - even with column drums - was much easier and at the same time more precise to produce in a lathe. Fluting or reliefs were usually only applied when the columns were upright and built. In India, such turning or turning techniques have developed into extremely artistic forms, especially in medieval Hoysala architecture .

As early as Roman times, and increasingly since the Baroque period , there were also pillars made of bricks and clad with stucco . Since the second half of the 20th century, pillars have mostly been cast from concrete in formwork tubes (shaft) and formwork forms (base and capital) and then plastered or otherwise clad.

Pillars in modern times

(About the use of columns in the architectural context, see the main article column order ) In Renaissance architecture , especially since Andrea Palladio , not only palaces and official houses are emphasized with columns and their facades are enhanced, but also the Christian churches are shown antique temple fronts.

This is where the inflation of the column begins, which was once sacred and then reserved for sacred buildings until the 19th century placed it in front of stock exchanges and train stations. "

- Hans Weigert, 1960;

The pillars are not reserved for architecture alone: ​​Motifs and rules from the books of pillars are adapted and put into practice more by cabinet makers than architects.


The distance between the column axes in a row of columns is called the axis width or yoke , and the clear width between the columns at their lower diameter is called the intercolumnium .

A facade structure with columns that extend over several floors of a building is called a colossal order and is primarily used to visually structure the facade.

In addition to the free-standing column ( free column ), there is the only partially protruding blend column , which can be formed as a half-column or three-quarter column . They can be grouped into bundles, which can be found especially in medieval architecture. Here one also speaks of services or service bundles of half or three-quarter columns, which are in front of a pillar and at least partially bear the weight of the vault. If a free column is narrowed between two parts of the wall, one speaks of a ricetto shape or ricetto architecture .

Structures in which columns were preferred are: temple and portico , colonnade and arcade , portal and propylon .

Non-load-bearing pillars

In modern architecture, pillars usually have less of a load-bearing function. In many cases in today's architecture the column is assigned a decorative character and the column develops into another type of facade or interior decoration. By eliminating the need for the supporting properties of a column, non-supporting columns are increasingly being used. A special form of a non-supporting pillar is z. B. the hollow column, which is made from modern concrete blocks in half-parts, and which can be installed for cladding as well as for decorating thanks to this new production technology. Another advantage of the hollow columns is u. a. their lower manufacturing price as well as their significantly lower weight.

Free standing pillars

In certain forms, columns also appear as stand-alone monuments. The oldest surviving Ionic capitals belonged to free-standing columns that were set up as votive holders in shrines. Another form that has existed since Roman antiquity is the honorary pillars , e.g. B. two around 260 BC Columnae rostratae erected in Rome for Gaius Duilius . Columns of honor are often erected in public places as a representative monument to important statesmen or battles won; in some cases they are designed as independent structures that can be walked on inside. The most famous examples in Rome are the Trajan Column and the Marcus Aurelius Column , both of which are wrapped in a spiral picture frieze.

The classicism made use of in this Roman form of honor Monuments and incorporated them into large-scale urban designs. The model was here Napoleon , which a column of honor on the type of Trajan's Column on the Place Vendôme was built in Paris (completed in 1810). Other well-known classical columns of honor are the Admiral Nelson Column in Trafalgar Square in London (1843), the Ludwig Column in Darmstadt (1844) and the Berlin Victory Column (1873).

An interesting variant that shows that the stylistic elements used can also be used differently is the Munich Angel of Peace , which although the generals of the Franco-German War of 1870/71 and their victory positively depicts, unlike earlier victory columns, however, the following one Is dedicated to peace.

A freestanding column is not always a monument. They are also available with an almost functional meaning (e.g. edict bearers, emblems, etc.). Ultimately, this also includes the so-called advertising column .

Other monuments that consist of free-standing columns:

Ornamental pillars

Small columns (see also balusters ) only have a really supporting function in extremely rare cases; First and foremost, they are to be understood as decorative and decorative elements that are intended to loosen up and structure the building. They are unknown in ancient architecture, but they occur in pre-Romanesque twin windows as well as window frames on Romanesque apses or within decorative fields. The early Indian architecture or the Puuc style of the Maya on the Yucatán peninsula also work with such decorative elements.

Special forms

Sculptures replace the columns on many buildings from antiquity, but also from the Baroque and Art Nouveau periods . Female figures are called caryatids , canephores or kores ; male atlases (with arms stretched up to support the framework) or kouroi (in an upright position with arms folded) depending on the posture .

Other special cases

In some cases, stand-alone building elements are also referred to as columns due to their vertical shape, even if they lack a base and capital:

Non-European pillars


Apart from - not preserved - wooden models, the earliest Indian columns seem to be free-standing monumental columns from the 3rd century BC. To have been (→ Ashoka columns ). They are probably based on ancient Greek models. The Buddhist and Hindu architecture of India could never really choose between pillars and pillars. Even in the early Buddhist cave temples of India - half pillar-like - pillars were carved out of the rock. Depending on the donors' available funds, the usually octagonal cut shaft has no base or capital or has a round or square base, a (partially) fluted shaft and usually ends in an upturned lotus blossom capital, later also in pillow-shaped amalaka - Capitals; the fighter blocks are then often figured out. From the 4th / 5th Free-standing temples (→ Gupta temples ) built in the 19th century, mostly Hindu, use columns or pillar-like structures, some of which were influenced by Persian, especially in the vestibules ( mandapas ). Turned stone columns experienced a heyday in the 12th and 13th centuries. Century in the Hoysala temples of South India. Later on, pillars take a back seat to pillars.

East asia

Most of the older temples in China , Japan, and Korea are made of wood. There are architrave beams above the columns . It was only in buildings from the 20th century that stone columns with capitals were found, which in some cases are based on European models.


While the cultures of the Mesoamerican highlands mainly used pillars - there were hall-like wall halls with columns in Tula and Chichen Itza - there were comparatively many buildings with round, mostly monolithic columns in the lowlands (especially on the Yucatán peninsula ) . However, these did not have any capitals, only fighter blocks to take the load - and even those are sometimes missing.

Web links

Commons : pillar  - collection of images, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: column  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wiktionary: Siegessäule  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. cf. Hans Koepf , Günther Binding : Picture Dictionary of Architecture (= Kröner's pocket edition . Volume 194). 4th, revised edition. Kröner, Stuttgart 2005, ISBN 3-520-19404-X , p. 402.
  2. ^ Hans Weigert: Architecture of the Renaissance in Europe , Umschau: Frankfurt 1960, p. XXV.
  3. Reinhard Peesch: books of columns. For the reception of antiquities in the joiner's guilds of the 16th to 18th centuries. In: Yearbook for Folklore and Cultural History, 1967, pp. 87-107.