capital, in architecture, the crowning member of a column, pilaster, or pier. It acts as the bearing member beneath the lintel or arch supported by the shaft and has a spreading contour appropriate to its function. The most primitive type, of which examples were found in the Beni Hassan tombs, Egypt, consisted of a square block. In later forms the capital had three well-defined parts: the neck, or necking, where it joins the shaft; the echinus, or spreading member above it; and the abacus, or block at the top. In Egypt such types were developed as early as 1500 B.C.; papyrus buds, the lotus, and the palm leaf were used as motifs of ornamentation. The Greeks perfected three types belonging to three separate orders of architecture—the Doric order, the Ionic order, and the Corinthian order—which were also used in slightly modified forms by the Romans in the form of the composite order. The classic forms of capitals continued in use after the fall of Rome, but the Romanesque and Gothic designers introduced new forms rich in variety: grotesque heads, birds, and animals. In the 15th cent., with the Renaissance, came a return to the classical orders that continued in use until the late 19th and early 20th cent. when the modernists cast out classical decoration.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.