Monday, July 9, 2018

A Short History of the Acanthus Leaf

As regular readers will have noted by now, I work a lot in both 18th century rococo style and in medieval styles, (where my true passion lies); some people might find this odd and think there is no connection between the two styles. Having spent a lot of time working with both of them, however, I realise that they actually do have a lot in common.

Over the centuries scores of literary works related to the design, origin, and style of the acanthus have been written and it is not my intention to add anything to what has already been done because I am quite sure I have nothing more to add. I simply want to show the natural evolution and continuity of the form over the course of history.

Detail of a 3rd century BC acanthus and flower base to a Greek column now
on display in the Louvre

Supposedly, the acanthus as an inspiration for ornament, had its origins in 5th century BC Greece. According to legend, as expounded by Vitruvius (1st century BC Roman author and historian) Callimachus (5th century BC Greek architect and sculptor) saw a basket which had an Acanthus Mollis plant growing around it and a tile on top, and this inspired the now famous form of the Corinthian Capital; which, of course, has acanthus leaves as its main ornamental motif. It would seem, however, that the plant soon gave inspiration to the ornamentation of more than just capitals, as can be seen by the column base from the 3rd century BC, pictured above.

Louis XIV ornament from Versailles; this ornament has a direct connection
with the ornament more than two thousand years prior, as pictured above
and was the the last in the evolutionary link leading up to the Rococo stlye

Most art histories will tell you that the forms of Greco-Roman art were "rediscovered" in the 14th century, which gave rise to the Italian, and then European wide Renaissance. (Which evolved into Baroque and the Rocco art, respectively) There are many problems with this notion, however, because the Greek and Roman ruins were scattered all over Europe, only gradually disappearing due to re-use and other ravages of time, never wholly being obliterated. Medieval artists had plenty of Classical inspiration to choose from, when and if they chose. The 1st century Roman "engaged" column, pictured below, is a good example; it was re-used as a door jamb during the Middle Ages. One can find nearly inexhaustible references to this basic motive throughout the medieval period, interpreted by each generation according to their own sense of "modern" taste and inventiveness.

Roman relief of the 1st century AD, now in the MET
12th century
scrolling ornament

The above picture, which is from the side of an altar, now in the Louvre, is a direct artistic evolutionary continuation of the Roman example pictured above. Over time, the leaves changed and birds and figures replaced the original flower at the centre of the design, but this is an evolution of the same idea, as seen through the eyes of 11th and 12th century artists. Other variations on the same theme can be seen in the following two illustrations as well.

12th century acanthus capitals from Saint-Guillhem-le-Desert
now in the Cloisters, New York

Detail of a 6th century marble column from
Toulouse, now in the Louvre

Supposedly the Romans added the curled heads to the Greek acanthus leaf, giving us the style that we are most familiar with today. I am not sure how true that statement is, because there is some curling to the design pictured at the beginning of this article. There is also a 4th or 3rd century BC Greek funerary urn that I photographed, which has a somewhat curly form to it as well. (pictured below)

4th or 3rd century BC base of a Greek funerary urn. North Carolina Museum
of Art

The leaf of this urn is very much in keeping with the style of those on the 6th century column, the 9th century ivory plaque, pictured below, and the 12th century capitals, shown above and below. This form of the acanthus had a long and variegated history, but it is almost always recognisable as having the same pedigree. 

Detail of  Carolingian ivory, now in the Cloisters

End of a 12th century compound capital now in the Cloisters

There was another form of the acanthus, however, (with pointed "spiky" leaves) which also had prominent use, but more commonly in the Greek and Byzantine sphere of Europe, than in the western lands. Many examples, both Medieval and Classical, exist, and this form also continued through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, as demonstrated by the column segment shown below.

An engaged capital of 9th century Byzantine form, now in the Louvre

An early 16th century renaissance column
now in Philadelphia Museum of Art

It was the curly headed version that was the most common throughout most of Europe, and the form which carried on into the 18th century rococo period.

Crest of a 15th century altarpiece, now in the Cloisters

Detail of a renaissance tapestry, now in the MET

Detail of an acanthus corner on a highly decorated casket, now in Philadelphia

The supposed "unbridled" exuberance of the 18th century French taste had many previous incarnations, as demonstrated by the Roman painting from Pompeii, (2nd illustration, below) the curled and playful leaves of the Romanesque period, and the late Gothic, "flamboyant" style of the 15th and 16th centuries. (3rd and last picture, below)

Part of a Stained glass border; French ca. 1200 Now in Philadelphia

Detail of a wall painting from Pompeii, now in the MET

15th century frieze, carved in wood, now in Philadelphia

18th century acanthus ornament from Chateau Champs-sur-Marne

Late 15th or early 16th century tapestry, now in the Cloisters

In art nothing is ever really new, and everything draws inspiration from what came before. In decoration, there has always been a sense of coming and going of fashion, and ornamentation has a very cyclical nature. Things turn up again and again, and motifs fall in and out of popular favour to a greater or lesser degree, but nothing ever really disappears. The Gothic style "fell out of taste" in the 16th century, but can still be found in some places into the 17th; by the middle of the 18th century it had its first "revival", and has been in and out of fashion ever since. Likewise, the rococo style fell out of favour around the time of the French revolution, but by the 1840's was being produced again in fashionable circles, and in fact, in provincial France, the style never ceased to be appreciated.

(all photos for this article are my own, taken on various museum visits in the past couple of years)

Videre Scire

1 comment:

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