Acanthus leaves are very common in William Morris designs, in fact they appeared in three of his tapestries I have looked at previously. I was interested in finding out why they are so prominent in his work.
‘Acanthus’ is a genus of about 30 species of flowering plants in the family of Acanthaceae, native to tropical and warm temperature regions; specifically, the Mediterranean and Asia.
The genetic name derives from the Greek term for the ‘Acanthus mollis’, a plant commonly imitated in Corinthian capitals. The Greek word for Accanthus means ‘thorn’, while the Latin for the species ‘mollis’ means ‘soft’, referring to the texture of the leaves.
The whole of the Acanthus plant has been used throughout history for medical purposes. The salty leaves (from the salty soil it easily grows in) acts as a preservative as well as a desiccant (it dries out the air around it). It has been used to treat skin ailments, as a natural antigen or antibiotic, an anti-inflammatory, a bone and joint healing aid and a painkiller. It has been used for centuries in India and Southeast Asia as an anti-venom remedy for various poisonous snakes.
With all its amazing healing powers it isn’t suprising that it has come to symbolize, immortality – rebirth – longevity and healing.
The Acanthus is one of the most common plant forms to make foliage decoration and ornaments. One of the oldest known examples of a Corinthian column displays the ornamental Acanthus leaves is in the Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae in Arcadia c.450-420 BC.
The Roman’s continued using these decorative Acanthus, elaborating their shape by curling the ends of the leaves. Some of the most detailed and elaborate acanthus decoration occurs in important buildings of Byzantine architecture, where the leaves are undercut, drilled, and spread over a wide surface. This decoration also appeared in medieval art, Romanesque architecture, the borders of illuminated manuscripts, as well as Renaissance architecture.
It is still used now, in textiles, furniture, architecture and art. Once you can recognize the plant you can spot it everywhere. For instance, whilst driving round Cardiff I spotted Acanthus leaves on many of old terraces and the walls of the Pierhead building at Cardiff Bay (images below). It is incredible how this little leaf has spread across the world and has been repeated in so many forms by so many people.
Why/how has the Acanthus Leaf become such a world wide form of decoration?
I doubt that everyone who has chosen to depict the Acanthus leaves has used it because of its symbolism (immortality – rebirth – longevity and healing). Could it be because of its historical context. Does it make a building or piece of furniture look more important/impressive by giving it historical context? Or is it just a matter of designing what we know?