Symbolism Sunday: The Acanthus

December 5, 2010

No, not the forget-me-not! The border!

Whether you like it or not, there’s a very good chance that you and your ancestors have interacted with the Acanthus in one form or another. Don’t believe me? Well, just because you’re sitting at home and enjoying your Sunday doesn’t mean you have to be so contentious! Oh, all right, the acanthus is one of the most heavily used plants in decoration – if you’ve seen a Corinthian column, then you’ve more than likely seen the leaves as decoration. Own one of those fabulous Rococo Victorian Revival pieces of jewellery that I’m always harping on about with their ‘flourishes’? There you go.

So, from this, we know that it was a staple of Greek architecture and art, adopted by the Romans, carried through Byzantine architecture and revived for the Romanesque movement. You can find acanthus leaves decorating Medieval manuscripts and wood carvings, so there were quite few periods of art since that haven’t been touched by this magical plant at one stage or another.

When it comes to funerary art, the acanthus symbolises the heavenly garden. It is one of the oldest cemetery motifs, acanthus is associated with the rock ground where most ancient Greek cemeteries were placed.

But what about jewellery? Well, I’ve breezed through its importance in classical art, so it’s only natural that it would make an appearance during the Revival Periods, but it’s a form of embellishment that could be translated in gold to frame almost any style in between. The more stolid Gothic Revival of the early 19th century (look to around 1830-50) even had the acanthus used as a motif (though quite a lot smaller), and why not? It was used during the original Gothic period in one manner or another, so for as long as there has been a mourning industry, this design has made appearances. Though, whereas in the Neoclassical Period, you’ll see it used less in the gold work and more in the painted symbolism, it was still around. For the early 19th century Regency era, it was used less so, as cleaner, straight lines ruled the day, but when there was cross-pollination with the Rococo period of the 1740s (styles were never killed off completely), then you’ll find it used as an embellishment here and there. By the mid-19th century Rococo Revival, then it made its full bloom once again.

Well, it’s a Sunday and you should get outside to enjoy the day. Consider this article to be the rather rambunctious Apollo making unwanted advances on your reclining Sunday Acantha Brain-cells, so now you can lash out at your screen, where the enraged article will turn you into an acanthus plant. Wow, that one was a stretch, even for me, but if you could wrap your head around that horrible analogy, you just took in the myth behind the plant.

Go, play!

Previously on Symbolism Sunday:

Revisiting The Trumpet

The Harp

Drapery

The Acorn

The Trumpet

The Male

The Woman

The Three Graces

Faith, Hope and Charity

The Clover

The Willow

The Column

The Hourglass

The Serpent

The Dove

The Dog

The Angel

The Marigold / Lily

29 Responses to “Symbolism Sunday: The Acanthus”

  1. athenaoz Says:

    Acanthus is a magic plant, though you must reat it with both respect as well as discipline. It is also commonly known as ‘Bear’s Paw’…because both the ‘blooms’ on the steam and the tips of the leaves have needle like edges which are extremely painful. In other words you cannot just grab this plant in your hand or stick your hand in to quickly break off a stem. It has very large shiny green leaves that have a ‘tropical’ look to them. It will grow in rock as well as the deepest wettest soils. It is almost impossible to kill or eradicate, hence its ubiquitous familiarity across the world. Spreads like crazy through the mass of seeds it produces. It’s leaves and long stalks are extremely ‘juicy’ retaining huge amounts of water. In the spring it sends up very tall elegant and beautiful stems from which very exotic ‘buds’ if you can call them that are produced…it’s a gracious and angular plant that graphic artists and those interested in plants that have strong linear and abstract qualities would be naturally drawn to. The tall acanthus stems were carried by both Greeks and Romans in processions, at celebratons and ritual events as ‘processional standards’. This ceremony can be seen on many Greek and Roman vases and on low-relief sculptured friezes that ran around the entablatures of temples. The famous relief frieze that runs all around the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens is an excellent example. I also imagine that boys and girls inflicte much pain and damage on each other by having ‘acanthus’ fights. (To be continued..I have to go wash the car).


  2. […] Reading > Spotlight On: Fob Accessories > A History of Hairwork > Symbolism Sunday: The Acanthus > Gothic Revival in Culture and Jewellery: Part 2, […]


  3. […] hair, or as band would say, the ‘Dear Remains’. This piece works in unison with itself; even the acanthus and floral Rococo Revival influence in the over-arching Gothic Revival style of the gold work that […]


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