Offering to Ceres by Jacques Jordaens courtesy Museco del Prado

A Closer Look at the Cornucopia

During the autumn and winter months, a part of the festive decor is the cornucopia.  This iconic object is associated with a plentiful bounty on the Thanksgiving table, but this décor has a fascinating visual history. We will look into the classical origin myth of the cornucopia, how it is represented in art, and a modern spin on the symbol.

Why Does the Cornucopia Have a Horn Shape?

A cornucopia is a curved, hollow basket shaped to resemble a goat’s horn. It is usually shown as overflowing with fruit and vegetables such as gourds, corn, apples, and grapes. Coming from the latin cornu (horn) and copia (plenty), it literally translates to “horn of plenty,” and is commonly used as a symbol of abundance. This type of basket was used in western Asia and Europe and traditionally worn slung across the back or torso to fill as a harvester gathered food.

Ancient Origins

Poussin the Infant Jupiter Nurtured by the Goat Amalthea

While there are many origin stories, one of the better-known myths tells of the goat Amalthea—in some versions, she is a goddess—who protected and suckled the baby Zeus while he was hiding from his Titan father Kronos. The young but strong godling at one point broke off one of her horns, and it had the power of providing endless bounty.

The cornucopia is sometimes associated with other deities of abundance, such as Ceres and Fortuna, and personifications of the earth like Gaia. Notably, it is not a common attribute of Demeter, the Greek goddess of the harvest, who is usually represented with a sheaf of wheat. Hercules was also famous for ripping off one of the horns of the river god Achelous.

Demeter Goddess of the Harvest
Demeter Goddess of the Harvest
Goddess Tyche

How the Cornucopia is Represented in European Art

The cornucopia is represented in art from various time periods and cultures. Frequently used as a decorative elements, drawings and prints from Northern Europe sneak it into the written works. It’s also commonly used as an attribute in free-standing sculptures of gods and allegorical personifications. It has even been the subject of still-life, as it is an excellent candidate for paintings of naturalia. The cornucopia gives artists the opportunity to experiment with composition, structure, and detail across a variety of mediums.

Ceres and Pan by Peter Paul Rubens c. 1620
Still Life Abraham Mignion
Still Life Abraham Mignion

A Modern Spin

To this day, the cornucopia is featured in national emblems such as the state seals for Idaho and North Carolina as well as coats of arms for nations like Colombia, Chile, and Peru.

Ultimately, the cornucopia is a universal symbol of plenty. The next time you see this iconic piece of autumnal décor, take a closer look and consider its visual history as you prepare your holiday feasts for family and friends.

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Rebeccah Swerdlow

Rebeccah has loved arts and museums for as long as she can remember. From a young age, she has seen much of the world and its treasures and perspectives. She has always loved learning about other cultures, so she decided to pursue an undergraduate degree at Loyola University Maryland with a double major in History and Art History, with a focus on Ancient Greece and Rome. While finishing her degree, she completed a research fellowship and was published in the Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies. She has volunteered at her local historical society and the Baltimore Museum of Art and worked in her university gallery. She then received her Master’s degree at the University of Delaware in Art History where she also worked with curatorial teams for exhibits at the Winterthur Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts as well as the university’s gallery. Rebeccah has frequented museums and galleries in the DC area for years. When she isn’t in a museum, you can find her working in the library of the Naval Historic and Heritage Command while earning her certification from the Society of American Archivists. Rebeccah values history, culture, and learning with the highest degree.
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