If you've ever looked at Corinthian columns, Roman buildings, Roman pottery, and fountains, you have seen acanthus leaves. They are on both the bottom and the top of Corinthian columns and likely one of their most identifiable characteristics.
This ancient motif is based on the leaf of a plant that has large and dramatically jagged leaves native to the Mediterranean region.
Acanthus was used in ancient times for its many healing properties. The plant served as a topical ointment for skin ailments, as a painkiller and anti-venom remedy. Because of its healing properties, it symbolizes healing, rebirth, and immortality. This is likely why acanthus leaves are often found on gravestones
History in Design
The earliest known use of acanthus leaves in design is the Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae (450-420 B.C.) in ancient Greece. Following that, it appeared iconically on the pediment of Corinthian columns. After the fall of Rome, where the acanthus leaf was used on most public and private buildings and as a ubiquitous decoration, it was present for centuries in cathedrals, worked in stone. During the Renaissance, the use of acanthus leaves as a design element exploded, and centuries later they began to be seen carved in woodwork in housgreeces of the Victorian era.
Acanthus leaves were a favorite motif of William Morris, the textile designer and artist most associated with the British Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century. They can be found in his textiles, on wallpaper and pottery.
The continued influence of the Arts and Crafts movement keeps interest in acanthus leaves alive today. In addition to being used as a design in textiles and wallpaper, the acanthus leaf motif is found carved into case goods and elegant woodwork in fine houses. You'll find the use of this motif most often in reproductions of Arts and Crafts furniture pieces such as desks, side and pedestal tables and on the legs of sofas.
Acanthus leaves are also still frequently found on decorative items such as pottery, jewelry, and paintings and on many styles of architecture.
Decorate With Acanthus Leaves
To incorporate this ancient design into your decor, follow the lead of Morris, its most recent advocate. Start with a dining table of dark wood with a pedestal adorned with effusive acanthus leaves. Add chairs with hints of the leaves climbing up the legs and a sideboard or hutch with acanthus leaves carved as decoration. Add wallpaper in a trademark Morris pattern that repeats the acanthus leaves, either prominently or as detail. Cover dining chair seat cushions in a fabric that matches the wallpaper for a custom look. As a final touch, place a pot or vase made of pottery that is also adorned with acanthus leaves in the center of the table.
If you prefer the classics and like a more minimalist style, accent straight-lined contemporary furniture with classical elements that contain acanthus leaves, such as models of Corinthian column pediments.