Architectural Ornament in Plant Forms

The oak leaf and acorn were also popular, but the acanthus was by far the most ubiquitous plant in the Classical vocabulary of ornament. The fame of the acanthus may have originated in a Greek legend, which tells of a young woman from the city of Corinth who died just before her marriage. After her burial her nurse gathered up some of her favorite possessions and put them in a basket, which she placed on the maiden’s grave as a memorial. She covered the basket’s top with a tile to weigh it down and keep out the rain.

But the basket rested on top of an acanthus root which, struggling to grow, pushed its tendrils out from under the basket. In time, the leaves curled around the base of the basket and under the tile lid. The legend’s end featured the architect Callimachus being inspired by the resulting composition to design the famous column capital we have labeled Corinthian, which comes in a variety of forms, as shown below in the drawing of  a stack of Corinthian capitals.

The only verified part of the legend is that Callimachus was a real person mentioned by the Roman writer Pliny and the Greek traveler, Pausanias, as a builder of monuments in Corinth. He was also known for his bronze castings and may have replicated the acanthus leaves in his work.

5 Responses

  1. I appreciate your comments and look forward to more o future posts,

  2. Tom Lease says:

    Incredibly well researched, well written, and very interesting article. Great job! I learned a lot of new words and new things today. Thank you!

  3. Sally,
    This latest piece is very insightful as to what has been lost by an architectural tradition that devalues ornamentation in favor of abstraction and and purity of form. Architectural critics who speak disdainfully of decoration as a distraction from the power of clean lines and a minimalist aesthetic forget, as you have so precisely demonstrated, the narrative power of ornamentation. If great buildings are those that make us pause and reflect, ornamentation such as you cite in your examples is proof that less is not always more. Architects’ continued aversion to the use of ornament on new buildings is an unfortunate legacy of modernism that seems to persist. These postings help us understand what we are missing when ornamentation is not a taboo aesthetic.

    Thanks again,
    Jay Claiborne

  4. Jay Turnbull says:

    I have enjoyed each part of your text on ornament. What interests me is the care and deliberation that underlie the inclusion of ornament for all but the most recent buildings – there is an interest in composition, in interplay of light and shadow, and in moving from drawing, to sculpture, to final realization. All this points to a system of belief that, sadly, now seems lost. Thank you for reminding us!

  5. Robin Chiang says:

    Hi Sally:

    Thank you for this splendid synopsis on the historic influence of plants in architectural ornament. Now that green architecture is popular wouldn’t it be charming if designers looked once again to plants for inspiration?


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