Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Acanthus Leaf Through Time
In architecture, the acanthus leaf continued to be an important decorative element after ancient times, and we see it used in Byzantine, Gothic, and Renaissance architecture. It traveled far from its Mediterranean home and can be found on buildings in France, England, and other European countries. It even found its way to America, where it was popular in later architectural styles like Greek Revival. Here's an image of an architectural element with acanthus leaves done by a Polish architect around 1910.
Notice how smooth and simplified the leaves are as opposed to earlier Greek and Roman designs.
Even beyond architecture, the acanthus leaf motif endures. The leaves became a popular element on furniture decoration during the Renaissance, and they've been used ever since. Today, you can find online tutorials for beginning woodcarvers showing them how to carve acanthus leaves.
That's a pretty long winning streak for a spiky leaf from a tough plant in the Mediterranean!
Let's review. The acanthus leaf comes from the perennial acanthus plant that has thick, spiny leaves with serrated, or jagged, edges, sort of like a dandelion or thistle leaf. It's also a popular architectural design element that developed in the Greek world. It was first used on capitals, or tops of a style of column called Corinthian. Greek architects also incorporated acanthus leaves into friezes, or long ornamental architectural panels found on a wall bordering a ceiling, on the walls of buildings. Later, the Romans used the acanthus leaf in an elaborate capital style called composite, where the leaves were mixed with larger ram's horn curls and other elements. The leaf, which symbolizes long life or immortality, has always been rendered in a stylized manner in architecture, and that style has changed depending on the fashion of the time. You can still find acanthus leaves today on architecture and in furniture design. Keep your eyes open and you might start to see them everywhere!
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