Elements – Architectural Elements Of Churches


Base and Pedestal. The base consisted of circles of moldings superimposed on a plinth (a square floor slab), fashioned out of a single block of stone. As a rule, the plinth remained without ornament. The circular element was normally developed as an Attic base, that is, with the following sequence of shapes: the upper torus (a convex molding), the scotia or trochilus (a concave molding or channel), and the lower torus.

Various adaptations of this traditional form were carried through in the late classical and early Byzantine periods with a view to simplification and refinement, as in the reduction of the upper torus to one or two fillets (narrow, flat bands) or the reduction of the lower torus to a half-torus leading into the vertical surface of the plinth. In the course of development, bases made of marble generally remained more closely tied to the traditional forms; early on, bases worked in local stone showed simplified forms such as simple beveling.

In special cases a square pedestal (also called a postament) was placed under the base; in late antiquity the two components were fashioned as a single, monolithic piece. The traditional decoration of the pedestal consisted of a relatively complicated sequence, or profile, consisting of supporting fillets above, making a cover slab, a contracted central field, and foot fillets below. These conventional forms were eventually simplified in various ways: the combining of the base and the cover slab of the pedestal into a single element, the discontinuation of individual moldings of the profile, the combination of supporting fillets and foot fillets, and their replacement by simple beveling.

The use of pedestals in late classical and early Byzantine buildings in Egypt appears to have been less restricted than Roman imperial architecture by any architectural canon, but presumably the aim was basically the elevation of column shafts with standard measurements, especially in basilicas such as the Great Basilica at Abu Mina and the main church at Dayr Apa Jeremiah.

A special form of the late fifth and sixth centuries was the octagonal pedestal fashioned together with its base from a single block. Such pedestals were set up, for example, in exedras (semicircular rooms formed by a recess), as in the Great Basilica and the Martyr’s Church at Abu Mina and at Dayr Apa Jeremiah.

Shaft. In the late classical period, the column shaft was fashioned as a monolith instead of being built up out of drums. It had no entasis but tapered upward in a slightly conical shape. The frugal decoration consisted of a foot ring and slight molding at the neck. Marble shafts with crosses in low relief were special cases. Occasionally workshops using local stone provided shafts with additional decoration—for example, a protruding tondo (medallion) with relief decoration—but these were small shafts, used for niches, and not full-size architectural supports. Shafts from local workshops completely covered with decoration for example, at Dayr Apa Apollo, Bawit, and Dayr Apa Jeremiah, were probably only half- columns.

Capital. The crowning member of the column was the capital, which provided support for the architrave or archivolt. The capital was the most richly and diversely decorated component of the column and therefore more subject to changing styles than the base or even the shaft. It can thus be dated within a narrower span of time.

It is not possible to describe here all the types of capitals known in late-classical and Byzantine Egypt. The most important and most widely distributed are the Corinthian, the Ionic, the composite, the capital with acanthus and flutes, the capital with olive branches on flat leaves, various types of two-zone capital, the impost capital (and its special refinement, the impost capital of fold type), and finally the basket-shaped capital (cf. Severin, 1977, nos. 274-77).

In the fully developed Corinthian capital, an upper crown and a lower crown, of eight acanthus leaves each, surround the calathus (cup-shaped body of the capital). On each of the four sides, cup- shaped sheath leaves spring from two stems visible between the leaves of the upper crown. The sheath leaves conceal the origin of spiral forms—helices, which curl inward, and volutes, which curl outward. The volutes run from the calathus to the corners of the abacus (coping stone or top slab), which is concave and may carry in the center an ornamental blossom or knob.

In the course of time, some of these motifs were discarded, such as the helices, and the sheath leaves and volutes were merged into one form. But one cannot say that the simpler a Corinthian capital is, the later its date. As early as Roman times, small capitals show fewer motifs. Also regional peculiarities must be taken into account; for example in the fifth-century tomb church of Dayr Apa Jeremiah, greatly simplified Corinthian capitals were normal, whereas at the same time, large capitals at Oxyrhynchus had a relatively complete stock of motifs.

The Corinthian capital of marble, whether imported or carved in Egypt, reached a spectacular zenith and widespread diffusion in the fourth and fifth centuries. It appears in hundreds of examples reused in churches and Islamic buildings, especially in and around Cairo. The Corinthian capital was the primary form of capital made of local stone until the Arab conquest.

In the Ionic capital, a broad cap, or coussinet, curls down at the sides into sturdy volutes. It overhangs an echinus molding decorated with the egg-and-dart motif, which runs between the volutes. An astragal (narrow molding) leads from the echinus to the shaft. A slender abacus finishes off the capital above the cap.

The conventional Ionic capital was seldom used in Egypt. A special local type in marble shows four tongue-shaped leaves arranged diagonally below the volutes; it is squat and short and was perhaps used as a capital in a gallery. More common were composite capitals combining Ionic and other elements. The Ionic impost capital (a capital with a pyramid-shaped impost block superimposed on it) made as a monolith, which was characteristic of the Eastern Roman Empire, was known in late fifth- and early sixth- century Alexandria but not in Middle or Upper Egypt and was not copied in local stone.

The composite capital combined the two acanthus leaf crowns of the Corinthian capital with the superimposed abacus, volutes, and echinus of the Ionic capital. It was more rarely used than the Corinthian capital but is well attested in Egypt. An artificial form with fine-toothed acanthus, made in many subtypes, was popular in the Eastern Empire in the late fifth century but reached Egypt only as an import and was not copied.

In the capital with acanthus and flutes, the lower zone is covered with acanthus leaves or has only four acanthus leaves arranged diagonally. Above them (or between the four leaves) is a crown of flutes; the abacus has straight or concave sides. This capital was much in use in marble throughout the fourth and fifth centuries. It was the model for works in local stone, which as a rule replaced the flutes with reed leaves or the like as in Dayr Apa Jeremiah.

The capital with olive branches on flat leaves was a short-lived creation of the Constantinople workshops in the early sixth century. It has only a single range of large undivided leaves, on which an olive branch is superimposed. It is either carved with the volutes of the Corinthian capital and an echinus in the upper section or follows the regular Ionic pattern. Found only in marble, this capital, through ready-made imports and probably local copies, is well represented by twelve examples in Egypt, a surprising number for so rare a type.

In the double-zone capital, a leaf crown, a branch, or some basketwork is surmounted by one or more animals. In addition to various ready-made imports in marble, copies in local stone have survived (Deichmann, 1982, pp. 255-68, ills. 1-4).

The impost capital makes the transition from the circular cross-section of the column shaft to the square or rectangular shape of the abacus in its own body, which is a block that splays out at the top. The oldest firmly dated examples of this type of capital, which marked a decided departure from ancient tradition, are works in Constantinople of the early sixth century. The appearance of this form in Egypt can therefore be set in the second quarter of the sixth century at the earliest.

Most of the various types of marble impost capitals in Egypt are ready-made imports. Regular impost capitals, in which the capital block is carried right to the corners of the abacus, seem rarely to have been manufactured in local stone. (For local works influenced by the imported marble impost capitals, see below.)

The impost capital of the fold type is a special form of the impost capital, formed by coussinets running diagonally from the corners of the abacus to the neck and in the middle from the abacus knob to the neck. This type of capital, of which ready-made marble imports are attested in Egypt, was imitated in local stone with small but significant variations that betray a lack of understanding of the imported form. In especially fine examples at Dayr Apa Jeremiah, the diagonal coussinets are not drawn right up to the corners of the abacus, and over the central coussinets an angular block appears in place of the abacus knob of the original design.

The basket-shaped capital has a convex, basket-shaped body under a thick abacus, which is usually modeled on the concave abacus of the Corinthian capital, especially at Dayr Apa Jeremiah and Dayr Apa Apollo, but also at al-Ashmunayn and Tebtunis. The ornamentation of these local works (e.g., the vertical twisted bands) demonstrates that they were conceived under the influence of imported marble impost capitals, especially the capital of the fold type. Some highly imaginative local pieces are relatively remote from the original design. These basket-shaped capitals are not to be considered impost capitals, because the corners of the abacus project freely and are not engaged with the capital block. Since they were influenced by impost capitals, they are later in date.

The impost block could be inserted between a capital and an archivolt around an arch. Unlike the classical and late-classical capital with its square abacus, which did not allow any extension in one dimension only, the impost block could be lengthened on its upper surface to form a rectangle, so that the column could be adapted to the varying thicknesses of the archivolts.

The impost block seems to have been used in Egypt only in the area of Alexandria and very rarely there; at any rate, it did not become widespread in the interior. There are a few examples from Abu Mina in Nummulite limestone and probably also in marble. These pieces presumably served to equalize the heights of uneven columns, inasmuch as the upper surfaces have the same dimensions.

In this connection, it appears noteworthy that the Ionic impost capital also may have been used only sporadically, as marble work in Alexandria; that the imitations of the imported impost capitals did not take over the ideal and formal consistency of their models; and that local workshops did not shy away from extending the abacus of a traditional capital in one direction in individual situations (i.e., giving the impost clearly rectangular proportions) in order to shape the piece suitably for a particular position (e.g., in the Corinthian capitals in Dayr Apa Jeremiah).

Egyptians did not seem to have felt it necessary to analyze and clarify such problems of architectural decoration in terms of theory, plan, and design. Evidently the impost block was scarcely understood as an achievement, and with the exception of Alexandria, it was deleted as superfluous from the list of Eastern Roman imports.

Half-Column. The half-column is treated separately, in order to emphasize characteristic phenomena of Egyptian architectural decoration in the late-classical and early-Byzantine epochs. A half- column, consisting of base, shaft, and capital, is engaged (attached) to a pillar or wall. It is generally used in pairs to flank an apse or other opening in a wall.

Half-columns were used at full length, as attested by projecting half-column capitals worked in a stucco composite in DAYR AL- BARAMUS in Wadi al-Natrun and a pair of limestone impost capitals of the fold type reused in the main church of Dayr Apa Jeremiah. Half-columns were also frequently employed in smaller sizes. In an alternating arrangement of semicircular and rectangular niches, they flanked the concave niches while pilasters (engaged rectangular pillars) flanked the rectangular niches.

From these smaller half-columns come the characteristic examples with shafts decorated in several zones, a continuance of Roman imperial decoration. The best-known examples from Dayr Apa Apollo and Dayr Apa Jeremiah were, however, found in unskillful secondary constructions, and the original system in the church of Dayr Anba Shinudah cannot easily be recognized under disfiguring repairs and patchings.


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  • Kautzsch, R. Kapitellstudien. Studien zur spätantiken Kunstgeschichte 9. Berlin and Leipzig, 1936; 2nd ed., 1970.
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