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Nonce Orders. Why There’s a Lizard in the Architecture

column capital nonce order

A regal column capital and a regal horned lizard make up this Tucson, Spanish Baroque facade.

This may be my only chance to seamlessly combine my two greatest passions — architectural detail and wildlife biology — into one post.  And do it without contrivance.

These two topics may seem like strange bedfellows, but they are species not entirely incompatible.

The Classical Orders (external link) are the rules that govern western architecture, partly expressed in the styles of column capitals, and are followed religiously by some, and taken liberties with, by others.

Nonce Orders

Nonce orders are for those who like to take liberties with the established orders.  Think of a nonce order as a one-off, custom design.  Like a custom home made to your exact specs.

Animals in the Architecture

For example, in 1789 George Dance created the charming Ammonite Order for the Shakespeare Gallery.  The design has since been repeated by other English architects, each giving the ammonite capitals their own special flourish.

nonce orders cloumn capitals

Ammonite capitals on pilasters in Oriental Place.  Photo by Stuart Walsh.

Since ammonites were at one time the dominate life form on earth, it’s only fitting they should play the role as dominant ornate element in these pilaster capitals.

Botanical Motifs

But you don’t need to be an enigmatic cephalopod to find a place in the exalted position of capital ornamentation, botanicals have enjoyed even more favor in this location.

Besides the familiar Acanthus species we find in the capitals of the Corinthian Order, a more recent addition includes A. J. Davis’ 1857 corn capitals in Lichfield Park, Brooklyn, symbolic of American prosperity.

column capital nonce orders

Botanical corn capital at the Litchfield Villa in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York. c. 1857

corinthian capital

The original, acanthus leaf motif on the Corinthian capitals of the Pallazo Ducale a Venezia. Photo courtesy of Giovanni Dall’Orto.

Desert Icons

While Mediterranean artists grew lush stands of acanthus in their capitals, craftsman in the Sonoran Desert populated theirs with classic desert icons — horned lizards, agave succulents, saguaro and prickly pear cactus — elegantly incorporated into this nonce order capital we found in downtown, Tucson.

short haired wife seen from behind

Jennifer and I discover horned lizards, agave and cactus in the capital of this Tucson church.

The lizard-encrusted church, St. Augustine Cathedral, we passed several times without ever noticing the lizards in the midst of the this richly ornate facade.

But this time the light was just right.  We spotted the horned lizards first, then the rest.

column capital

I think we should call the species of agave depicted in the capitals, Agave murpheyi, a cultivar grown by the Hohokam.  The cactus depicted can only be our saguaro, Carnegiae gigantea, and the prickly pear cactus one of the local Opuntia species.

But what about the horned lizard?  Which of the seven species found in the Sonoran Desert did Henry Jaastad, the architect who designed the cathedral, base his lizard on?

I vote for the regal horned lizard, Phrynosoma solare, if not for their distinctive “horns,” like those in the capital, then for their prevalence in the part of the desert I’m most familiar.

nonce capital horned lizard

A young regal horned lizard I found wile working in the Tonto National Forest, Arizona.

nonce order capital regal horned lizard

An adult regal horned lizard I found in the upper Sonoran Desert. This species possibly inspired the horned lizard in Tucson’s St. Augustine Cathedral nonce capitals.

So there you have it.  Probably the only time I’ll ever be allowed to legitimately write about lizards and architectural details in the same post.  It felt good.

[This is part of my Molding Design & Installation series.]

Nonce order column capital

Classical acanthus ornaments combined with nonce order capitals and spandrels.

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