Byzantium in Shadyside



We see columns everywhere we look on the exterior of Shadyside Presbyterian Church – as well as in the narthex and sanctuary.  Most of them serve some load-bearing function, but only as part of the masonry members into which they are carved.  The most interesting decorative feature of the columns is the sculpture work on the capitals.  The capital designs clearly differ from the familiar Classical orders, although they can be traced back these sources.


For the immediate precedents of Shadyside’s columns, we do well to look to the work of H. H. Richardson.  Our designers – Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge – were the successors the influential architect.  In fact, they completed the work at his masterpiece Allegheny County Courthouse & Jail.  It is there that we find patterns in some column capitals which, no doubt, influenced those on the original church and chapel buildings.


Capital at Grant Street Entrance of Allegheny County Courthouse

Shadyside’s capitals are composed of floral patterns (that appear to be stylized acanthus leaves), geometric figures and scroll-like volutes.  These combinations finds precedent at the Courthouse.  There, and on Richardson’s other work, we also find capitals which use stylized sculpture of humans, animals and other beings, real and fanciful.  We might be tempted to attribute the absence of these latter subjects to a reserved Presbyterian suspicion of anything approaching a “graven image.”  Yet we find dozens of faces in the grotesques carved into the lantern tower – and two royal visages at the church’s main entrance.  


Floral & Figural Capitals at Abbaye St-Pierre
Moissac, Midi-Pyrenees, France
Photo Courtesy of Sacred Destinations

Norman block capital column, Worcester Cathedral, England, Courtesy Sacred Destinations  & Shadyside Parish Hall column

The Richardsonian Romanesque mode of Shadyside Church would point us to eleventh century European architecture for inspiration of column design for the nineteenth century revival style.  Indeed, floral and geometric carving proliferated in those medieval buildings, but often accompanied by figures that depict a Biblical story, represent a saint or other historical personage, or warn the faithful against the horrific consequence of sin.  Like carved grotesques of the period, these figures are usually abstract, dramatic and fanciful depictions.  Also common to the period are unadorned block or cushion capitals, especially in Norman and northern European capitals.

Corinthian capital Courtesy of  Atelier Teee


Fifth Century Byzantine capital & Shadyside capital showing Corinthian influence

To find origins of the relative restraint of Shadyside’s capitals, we must search earlier architecture.  As the era we call Early Christian gave way to the Early Byzantine (roughly the fourth century) stone carvers began to produce capitals that appear to be a further development of the Corinthian and related Composite Capital (which until the Renaissance was considered to be an extension of the Corinthian).  The acanthus leaves and volutes of these orders are stylized in Byzantine work.  This shows clearly in sixth century examples from Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. While there are often features like monograms and symbols, figural carving is not prevalent.


Capitals at Hagia Sophia  Photo Courtesy erendipity!

Because the Byzantine culture persisted after the Fall of Rome, it influenced Western European architecture, especially in the Romanesque period as artistic and construction skills were revived.  The Romanesque column capitals developed from the Byzantine rather than the Classical. There is disagreement among scholars as to the level of iconoclasm in the Early Church.  However, by the eight century, disputes over representational art convulsed the Christendom.  By Romanesque times, at least in the West, the didactic and cautionary function of pictorial carving in churches appeared to outweigh its danger of idolatry.

 Illustration from Ruskin's The Stones of Venice labeled "Byzantine Capitals Convex Group" with Shadyside examples

Romanesque Revival designers, then, could learn about column capital form from the work of masters and colleagues, from observation (drawings and photos and, in some cases, European travel).  One very important influence, on taste as well as design, was the work of John Ruskin.  The English artist, critic and writer was widely studied.  His book The Stones of Venice published drawings of examples and development of Byzantine capitals. It is not hard to see the influence in the capitals at Shadyside - one of a number of instances where Romanesque roots in Byzantium are clear.