Perhaps the most well known Neolithic site, Stonehenge, made use of early columns. Dolmen is the name sometimes applied to two or more upright stones supporting a horizontal slab. Cromlech refers to the use of three or more upright stones capped with an unhewn flat stone. These methods of construction were often seen on various Neolithic sites of worship throughout Europe.
In ancient Egyptian architecture as early as 2600 BC, the architect Imhotep made use of stone columns whose surface was carved to reflect the organic form of bundled reeds, like papyrus, lotus and palm. In later Egyptian architecture faceted cylinders were also common. Their form is thought to derive from archaic reed-built shrines. Carved from stone, the columns were highly decorated with carved and painted hieroglyphs, texts, ritual imagery and natural motifs. Egyptian columns are famously present in the Great Hypostyle Hall of Karnak (circa 1224 BC), where 134 columns are lined up in sixteen rows, with some columns reaching heights of 24 meters.
One of the most important types are the papyri form columns. The origin of these columns goes back to the 5th Dynasty. They are composed of lotus (papyrus) stems which are drawn together into a bundle decorated with bands: the capital, instead of opening out into the shape of a bellflower, swells out and then narrows again like a flower in bud. The base, which tapers to take the shape of a half-sphere like the stem of the lotus, has a continuously recurring decoration of stipules.
Some of the most elaborate columns in the ancient world were those of the Persians, especially the massive stone columns erected in Persepolis. They included double-bull structures in their capitals. The Hall of Hundred Columns at Persepolis, measuring 70 × 70 metres, was built by the Achaemenid king Darius I (524–486 BC). Many of the ancient Persian columns are standing, some being more than 30 metres tall. Tall columns with bull's head capitals were used for porticoes and to support the roofs of the hypostylehall, partly inspired by the ancient Egyptian precedent. Since the columns carried timber beams rather than stone, they could be taller, slimmer and more widely spaced than Egyptian ones.
Greek & Roman
Greek & Roman
The Minoans used whole tree-trunks, usually turned upside down in order to prevent re-growth, stood on a base set in the stylobate (floor base) and topped by a simple round capital. These were then painted as in the most famous Minoan palace of Knossos. The Minoans employed columns to create large open-plan spaces, light-wells and as a focal point for religious rituals.
These traditions were continued by the later Mycenaean civilization, particularly in the megaron or hall at the heart of their palaces. The importance of columns and their reference to palaces and therefore authority is evidenced in their use in heraldic motifs such as the famous lion-gate of Mycenae where two lions stand on each side of a column. Being made of wood these early columns have not survived, but their stone bases have and through these we may see their use and arrangement in these palace buildings.
The Egyptians, Persians and other civilizations mostly used columns for the practical purpose of holding up the roof inside a building, preferring outside walls to be decorated with reliefs or paintings. The Ancient Greeks however, followed by the Romans, loved to use them on the outside as well, and the extensive use of columns on the interior and exterior of buildings is one of the most characteristic features of classical architecture, in buildings like the Parthenon. The Greeks developed the classical orders of architecture, which are most easily distinguished by the form of the column and its various elements. Their Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders were expanded by the Romans to include the Tuscan and Composite orders.
Columns, or at least large structural exterior ones, became much less significant in the architecture of the Middle Ages. The classical forms were abandoned in both Byzantine and Romanesque architecture in favor of more flexible forms, with capitals often using various types of foliage decoration, and in the West scenes with figures carved in relief.
During the Romanesque period, builders continued to reuse and imitate ancient Roman columns wherever possible; where new, the emphasis was on elegance and beauty, as illustrated by twisted columns. Often they were decorated with mosaics.
Renaissance architecture was keen to revive the classical vocabulary and styles, and the informed use and variation of the classical orders remained fundamental to the training of architects throughout Baroque, Rococo and Neo-classical architecture.