Initial letter C decorated with interlacing scrolls of acanthus.

Detail from the Stavelot Bible

Add MS 28107, 4r.

The acanthus motif is a specific type of ornament with a long history. Used throughout the centuries in Europe and elsewhere. From classical Greek and Roman architecture, and romanesque book illumination to Arts & Crafts wallpaper designs, Jugendstil objects and more. Truly an evergreen.

In book illumination often used in combination with, or as motif for, scroll and interlace decoration. But even given these terms that strive to identify specific, discrete elements of decoration, it’s interesting to that looking at the Stavelot Bible initial above it’s impossible to tell where the one stops and the other starts.

Visuals like these are continuous and all-at-once. That these treatments are then used to render a single letter is typical for the medieval interest in ambiguous text and image interplay and an example of that remarkable absence of the true representation of nature.

A visual timeline of acanthus styles.
Image CC BY-SA 4.0

Timeline of acanthus styles (via Wikipedia):

  • a. Greek
  • b. Roman
  • c. Byzantine
  • d. Romanesque
  • e. & f. Gothic
  • g. Renaissance
  • h. & i. Baroque
  • j. & k. Rococo