Acanthus Leaf Meaning and Symbolism (Triumph, Death & More)

Acanthus is a thistle like plant found in warmer climates. According to the Ancient Greeks, the acanthus flower was said to be a nymph loved by Apollo called Acantha, however the god eventually changed her into the acantha flower.

The sinuate, notched leaves of two kinds of acanthus in the Mediterranean region provided the pattern for a leaflike ornamentation and was also used to make garlands and wreaths.

The symbolic significance of the acanthus probably derives from its thorns, signifying that a difficult task has been fully accomplished.

The acanthus leaf was widely reproduced in Classical antiquity and in the Middle Ages as a decorative motif, the symbolism deriving essentially from the thorns of the plant, as well as it’s growth pattern.

A Greco-Roman triumphal image of life’s trials surmounted, a symbolism suggested by the plant’s thorns and its vigorous growth.

According to a legend recorded by Vitruvius, the sculptor Callimachus (late 5th century BC) was inspired by the sight of a bunch of acanthus leaves crowning the grave of a young girl to copy them as the decoration for the capital of a column.

What can be learned from this legend is that the acanthus motif was used extensively in funerary architecture to designate the triumphant conquest of the trials of life and death, symbolized by the thorns on the leaf of the plant.

The acanthus plants decorated Corinthian capitals, hearses and the clothes of the great because architects, the dead and heroes had overcome all difficulties in their path. These acanthus leaves on the Corinthian capital may also refer to a Greek myth of an acanthus springing up on the grave of a hero.

As with thorns in general, the acanthus is also the symbol of virgin soil and of virginity and that too implies another sort of triumph.

In Christian interpretations, whoever wears this leaf has overcome the Biblical curse:

“Thorns and thistles shall [the ground] bring forth for thee” (Genesis 3: 18), in the sense that once surmounted, suffering is turned to victory.

In the medieval period, acanthus leaves signify the awareness and the pain of sin, guilt and punishment.

For this reason, the Tree of Jesse is often based on the acanthus.

Throughout history, was used as a symbol numerous times, often with different roles:

  1. It was widely renowned for its growth: bold and vigorous, having erect stems with stately spikes and many white, purple or red flowers;
  2. For Christians, it was also famous for its tendency towards stunted growth (v. Luke 8, 7);
  3. Use on Greek (usually acanthus spinosus) and Roman (usually acanthus molis) columns;
  4. The primary Greek funeral leaf;
  5. Ornamental plant in Roman gardens and cities;
  6. Its roots were said to have great healing powers (Pliny 22, 34);
  7. Could symbolize any of the following: immorality, artisanship, love of art, hapiness;
  8. Plant of the Garden of Heaven (according early Christians);
  9. As a gift, since nothing will separate the giver and receiver;
  10. A veil fringed with acanthus was worn by Helen when she arrived in Troy, according to Vergil (Aen. 1, 6491.);
  11. Awareness and pain of sin.

Resources:

  • A dictionary of symbolsby Cirlot, Juan Eduardo
  • A dictionary of symbols by Chevalier, Jean
  • Dictionary of symbolsby Chetwynd, Tom
  • A dictionary of dream symbols : with an introduction to dream psychologyby Ackroyd, Eric
  • Illustrated dictionary of symbols in eastern and western artby Hall, James
  • Dictionary of symbols and imageryby Vries, Ad de
  • Symbolism : a comprehensive dictionaryby Olderr, Steven
  • Dictionary of mythology, folklore and symbolsby Jobes, Gertrude
  • The complete dictionary of symbolsby Tresidder, Jack
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