The Corinthian, Doric, and Ionic Orders

Brent Leppo

The Corinthian order is one of the Classical orders of Greek and Roman architecture, characterized by a slender fluted column and an ornate capital decorated with acanthus leaves and scrolls. Claude Perrault Vitruvius, best known as the architect of the eastern range of the Louvre in Paris, wrote that the Corinthian order had been invented by Callimachus, an architect and sculptor who was inspired by the sight of a votive basket that had been left on the grave of a young girl. The Corinthian column is similar to the Ionic column, though it may be made trimmer and set distinctively apart by the carved capital. The abacus upon the capital has concave sides to conform to the out scrolling corners, and it may have a floral shaped design at the center of each side.

The oldest known example of a Corinthian column is in the Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae in Arcadia, around 450–420 BC. It is not part of the order of the temple itself, which has a Doric colonnade (a row of columns set at regular intervals around a building and supporting the base of the roof) surrounding the temple and an Ionic order within the cella enclosure. A single Corinthian column stands free, centered within the cella, as many examples of Corinthian columns in Greece during the next century all did. A more famous example, and the first documented use of the Corinthian order on the exterior of a structure, is the circular Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens, erected ca 334 BC.

The Corinthian order really became prominent in Roman practice. Most buildings (and most clients) used two orders. When orders supersede one another, the natural progression is from sturdiest and plainest (Doric) at the bottom, to slenderest and richest (Corinthian) at the top. The Colosseum's top-most tier has an unusual order that came to be known as the Composite order during the 16th century. The mid-16th century Italians, especially Sebastiano Serlio and Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola thought they detected a Composite order, combining the volutes of the Ionic with the foliage of the Corinthian, but in Roman practice volutes were almost always present.

In Romanesque and Gothic architecture, where the Classical system had been rendered by a new esthetic, which was composed of arched vaults springing from columns, the Corinthian capital was still retained. It was fairly plain, as was the case of Cistercian architecture, which encouraged no distraction from consistent applications, or in other contexts it could be treated to numerous fanciful variations.

The Doric order is another of the three orders or organizational systems of Ancient Greek or classical architecture. In their original Greek version, Doric were composed directly on the flat pavement of a temple without a base. Their upright shafts were fluted with 20 parallel concave grooves; and they were topped by a smooth capital that flared from the column to meet a square abacus at the intersection with a cross-beam, (known as the “entablature”) that they carried.

Pronounced features of both Greek and Roman versions of the Doric order are the triglyphs and metopes. The triglyphs are decoratively grooved and represent the original wooden end-beams, which rest on the plain architrave that occupies the lower half of the entablature. 3 Under each triglyph are structures that appear as if they were hammered in from below to stabilize the post-and-beam construction. A triglyph is centered above every column, with another (or sometimes two) between columns, though the Greeks felt that the corner triglyph should form the corner of the entablature, creating a mismatch with the supporting column.

Early examples of the Doric order include the temples at Paestum, in southern Italy, a region called Magna Graecia, which was settled by Greek colonists. The Temple of the Delians is also a widely known Doric temple, being the largest of three dedicated to Apollo on the island of Delos. Construction began around 478 BC and the building was never completely finished. During their period of independence from Athens, the Delians reassigned the temple to the island of Poros. It is “hexastyle”, with six columns across the shorter end and thirteen along each long face. The plain, unfluted shafts on the columns stand directly on a platform, without bases. A classic example of the Greek Doric order is the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens, built about 449 BC. The contemporary Parthenon, the largest temple in classical Athens, is also in the Doric order, although the sculptural design is more familiar in the Ionic order.

In the Roman Doric version, the height of the entablature has been reduced. The endmost triglyph is centered over the column rather than occupying the corner of the architrave. The columns are slightly less robust in their proportions. Crown moldings soften transitions between areas and emphasize the upper edge of the abacus. Roman Doric columns also have moldings at their bases and stand on low square pads or are even raised on plinths. In the Roman Doric mode, columns are not invariably fluted.

According to Vitruvius, the height of Doric columns is six or seven times the diameter at the base. This gives the Doric columns a shorter, thicker look than Ionic columns, which have 8:1 proportions. It is suggested that these proportions give the Doric columns a masculine appearance, whereas the more slender Ionic columns appear represent a more feminine look. This sense of masculinity and femininity was often used to determine which type of column would be used for a particular structure.

The Ionic order is the last of the three orders or organizational systems of classical architecture. (There are two lesser orders, the stocky Tuscan order and the rich variant of Corinthian, the Composite order, added by 16th century Italian architectural theory and practice.) The Ionic order originated in the mid-6th century BC in Ionia, the southwestern coastland and islands of Asia Minor settled by Ionian Greeks. The Ionic order was being practiced in mainland Greece in the 5th century BC. The first of the great Ionic temples, though it stood for only a decade before an earthquake leveled it, was the Temple of Hera on Samos, built about 570 BC–560 BC by the architect Rhoikos. It was in the great sanctuary of the goddess and couldn’t have been in a more prominent location for the duration of its short lifetime. A longer-lasting 6th century Ionic temple was the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Unlike the Greek Doric order, Ionic columns normally stand on a base which separates the shaft of the column from the platform. The capital of the Ionic column has characteristic paired scrolling volutes that are laid on the molded cap of the column, or spring from within it. Originally, the volutes lay in a single plane, then it was seen that they could be angled out on the corners. This feature of the Ionic order made it more sinuous and satisfactory than the Doric to critical eyes in the 4th century BC. Angling the volutes on the corner columns ensured that they were in unison when seen from either front or side facade.

Below the volutes, the Ionic column may have a wide collar or banding separating the capital from the fluted shaft. After a little early experimentation, the number of hollow flutes in the shaft settled at 24. This standardization kept the fluting in a familiar proportion to the diameter of the column at any scale, even when the height of the column was exaggerated. Roman fluting leaves a little of the column surface between each hollow; Greek fluting runs out to a knife edge that was easily scarred.The Ionic column is always more slender than the Doric, where they’re eight and nine column-diameters tall. Ionic columns are most often fluted.

The major features of the Ionic order are the volutes of its capital, which have been the subject of much theoretical and practical discourse, based on a brief and obscure passage in Vitruvius. The only tools required were a straight-edge, a right angle, string (to establish half-lengths) and a compass. Vitruvius reports that the Doric has a basis of sturdy male body proportions while Ionic depends on "more graceful" female body proportions. These masculine and feminine, pointed out by many influential figures in architecture, were the characteristics that differentiated between the orders for a long time; and the gender roles also had a profound impact on the decisions as to which orders were going to be used in different applications.

Suggested References:

“Corinthian” Retrieved February 3, 2008 from

“Doric” Retrieved February 3, 2008 from

“Ionic” Retrieved February 3, 2008 from

Sayre, Henry M. A World of Art: Fifth Edition. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, 2007.