Acanthus

DSCN4297 (2)Looking at all the leaves carved on columns and tucked into the arches in our church, you might wonder “why the kale obsession?”

What you see is not, however, an historic tribute to a now-trendy vegetable. Instead, the leaves are acanthus – a frilly, thorny Mediterranean plant with a long architectural and symbolic history.

When did acanthus first appear in architecture? Some suggest that the form evolved from palm designs used in ancient Egypt in the time of the pyramids. A charming legend tells a different story of an ancient Greek sculptor who, fascinated by the sight of acanthus weeds growing through a basket on a gravesite, was inspired to recreate their shapes on Corinthian columns.

Whatever the origin, the leafy border was a common feature of ancient Greek and Roman architecture. From there, it traveled to the Eastern part of the Roman Empire to be used in Byzantine design from the 600s AD. At that point, the leaves became artistic forms, combined in complicated scrolls and garlands. These patterns were further adapted in Medieval Romanesque architecture, then became popular again in Late Victorian decoration. So the acanthus leaves in our 1911 Byzantine-Romanesque church have long design roots!

Symbolically, acanthus represents eternal life. Because of its thorny leaves, it also references the loss of Eden in Genesis: “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field…”

When our church was built in the early 1900s, the Garden of Eden reference was accidentally relevant: new houses in the neighbourhood were being built over surrounding country fields, while flowers and leaves were remembered for us in sculptured clay and stone. (Many of those new houses, incidentally, were decorated with stylish acanthus “gingerbread”!)

At that time, and up until Vatican II simplified the church calendar, the church was more connected with the natural world, decorating with seasonal flowers and celebrating Ember Days of fasting and prayer four times a year to mark the changing seasons. Their purpose, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia,  was to “ thank God for the gifts of nature, to teach men to make use of them in moderation, and to assist the needy.” In an increasingly technologized age, perhaps stopping to notice our acanthus “kale” can help us to reconnect!

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