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Acanthus Leaves: Architecture, Design & Symbolism

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever seen carved leaves used as building decorations? They might have been acanthus leaves. In this lesson, explore the meaning and use of the acanthus leaf in architecture. Updated: 09/19/2022

What Is an Acanthus Leaf?

Have you ever peered up at a building and wondered why it's decorated with a pattern of stylized leaves? They might be acanthus leaves, a symbol used in architecture since ancient times.

The acanthus leaf comes from the acanthus plant. It's a perennial, which means it doesn't have to be replanted each season. It has thick, spiny leaves with serrated, or jagged, edges, sort of like a dandelion or thistle leaf. There are several varieties of acanthus plant, and some have thicker or spikier leaves than others.

Sometimes also called bear's branches, the acanthus plant is native to the Mediterranean. It grows in a wide variety of harsh climate conditions, like windblown rocky ledges and islands with very salty air. Since ancient times, it's also been said to have healing and medicinal properties.

But when you see it used in decoration, does it have some deeper meaning? It certainly does. Given the plant's background, you might not be surprised to know that acanthus leaves symbolize enduring life or long life and immortality. Even as design symbols, these leaves are enduring because they've been used for thousands of years.

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  • 0:04 What Is an Acanthus Leaf?
  • 1:14 Architecture's Acanthus Leaves
  • 3:02 Acanthus Leaf Through Time
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Architecture's Acanthus Leaves

We begin to see acanthus leaves used in Greek architecture around the fifth century BCE, most notably on the Temple of Apollo Epicurius from circa 450 to 420 BCE. The leaves appear on elaborate capitals, or tops of columns, on a style of Greek column known as Corinthian. Appearing here is an image of a Corinthian capital from the Temple of Zeus in Athens.

Example of Corinthian capital with acanthus leaf design
Corinthian capital with acanthus leaves

On it, several rows of acanthus leaves point upward, some of their edges tightly curled.

You can also see acanthus leaves used in Greek architecture on friezes, or long ornamental architectural panels found on a wall bordering a ceiling. The acanthus leaf becomes a prominent reoccurring motif or design element throughout the Greek world.

Later, the Romans adopted acanthus leaves in the design for an even more elaborate style of capital called composite, where the leaves were mixed with larger ram's horn curls and other elements. Here's an image of an artist's rendering of a composite capital.

Drawing of a Roman Composite capital
Drawing of a Composite capital

Like the Greeks, the Romans also used the acanthus leaf in other architectural decoration.

When you see acanthus leaves used in architecture, you'll realize that they don't look like real leaves. They're stylized, with simplified lines and graceful curves. Furthermore, each culture that used the leaf adapted its image to their taste and, as we all know, tastes change over time.

So the appearance of acanthus leaves in architecture varies by culture and time period. Sometimes, the leaves are pointed while at other times, their edges are rounder. Sometimes leaf edges curve in tight curls while in other designs, they protrude forward. It all depends on changing styles and tastes.

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