The acanthus leaf definitely is a real plant originally found in the Mediterranean. I have heard that this plant that inspired so many architects and designers thousands of years ago is considered an invasive plant today – sort of like our thistle in the US – and it even resembles the thistle in appearance. I tried to grow one in my garden, and it was really beautiful. I, however, am a woodcarver and not a gardener – so it did not last long in my hands. But I managed to take a photograph of one of the leaves before it met its demise.
So it started as this…
Then evolved to this…
Or maybe this…
You can see that the leaf evolved into designs that often have little resemblance to the original plant. But that’s what is so great about this design! There are certain specific design elements that carry through all leaves that identify it as an “acanthus leaf”, but it is the variety that intrigues me the most.
Here are several direct dictionary meanings of “acanthus” which I thought interesting. Hope you do too.
From the Oxford Dictionary:
In architecture, an ornament may be carved into stone or wood to resemble leaves from the Mediterranean species of the Acanthus genus of plants, which have deeply cut leaves with some similarity to those of the thistle and poppy. Both Acanthus mollis and the still more deeply cut Acanthus spinosus have been claimed as the main model, and particular examples of the motif may be closer in form to one or the other species; the leaves of both are in any case, rather variable in form. The motif is found in decoration in nearly every medium.
The relationship between acanthus ornament and the acanthus plant has been the subject of a long-standing controversy. Alois Riegl argued in his Stilfragen that acanthus ornament originated as a sculptural version of the palmette, and only later, began to resemble Acanthus spinosus.
From Collins Dictionary:
acanthus (əˈkænθəs ) or acanth (əˈkænθ)
(plural) -thuses, -thi (-θaɪ)
- any shrub or herbaceous plant of the genus Acanthus, native to the Mediterranean region but widely cultivated as ornamental plants, having large spiny leaves and spikes of white or purplish flowers: family Acanthaceae See also bear’s-breech
- a carved ornament based on the leaves of the acanthus plant, esp as used on the capital of a Corinthian column
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