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The fountain as a symbol in art

Farewell to the fountain of tears. Long live the well of joy!

Fountains are always attractive. Such hydraulic units were of special importance for ancient people, Asian and Mediterranean civilizations. Both the rich and the poor needed water and looked for it. Painters did not neglect the decorated source of water and it took its own place among the graphic codes. Let’s try to decypher this secret symbol of the past and its transformations. So, meet a fountain and its symbolism
Exquisite still-lifes and marvelous plants on canvases: flowers do not only beautify the appearance, but also open secret meanings, and convey messages to the attentive researcher. Leafing through captivating Herbarium, we're examining enigmatic garden of flower symbols.

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Symbolism is an art movement that has been reflected in painting, literature and music. It emerged in the 1870s-1880s in France, later spread to Belgium, Norway, and the Russian Empire. It reached the peak of popularity at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries. Symbolism is characterized by sadness, introspection and understatement: as if an artist came to quiet despair, but he was too shy to talk about these feelings, so he painted them.

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in painting.
The fountain as a symbol in art

Strict vertical line of a washstand

Byzantium, a heiress of the Roman Empire
Empire (fr. empire – imperial) is the style of the late classicism in architecture, applied art and painting. It was popular during the first three decades of the 19th century.
It is characterized by the craving for monumentality and greatness: so that it immediately becomes clear to everyone that the emperor’s power is almost limitless! The Empire style arose in France during the reign of Napoleon, later it was replaced by the eclectic art movements currents and then itfound its revival in ... the Soviet Union. Read more
, passed this advantage of ancient civilization to the Christianity as a polysemous symbol. First of all, a special washstand was used for priests to wash their hands before service, which is called lavabo. Very often such device for washing hands had a shape of a fountain.
Since the Church needed strict structural hierarchy, the motif of a multilayer fountain symbolizing

Since the Church needed strict structural hierarchy, the motif of a multilayer fountain symbolizing closely interrelated Church and society appeared in the icon painting. The upper layer of the fountain symbolized the idea of God, who bestowed the life-giving holy water on the Christians.

The same idea about the world order was embodied in the Fountain of Grace and the Triumph of Ecclesi

The same idea about the world order was embodied in the Fountain of Grace and the Triumph of Ecclesia by one of van Eyck’s followers.

The symbol of a baptismal font used for baptism (also called baptistery) and at the same time the symbol of Eden was depicted for the first time in illuminated manuscripts and later in wall paintings.
A fountain usually had a hexagonal structure covered with a cupola. The columns in front embodied fo

A fountain usually had a hexagonal structure covered with a cupola. The columns in front embodied four Evangelists, who declare good news since their books talk about the good news of Jesus, and four headwaters running from Eden symbolizing the Grace of God bestowed upon everybody and everything. (Illustrations from the Bible of the Carolingian dynasty dedicated to baptism of son of Charles the Great in 781, the Gospels from the abbey of St. Medard, Soissons).

The fountain as a symbol in art
The early Christian subject matter, often found in catacombs, depicts St. Peter and St. Paul and two pigeons at a fountain symbolizing souls drinking water from the fountain with the life-giving water in Eden. (The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, V century).

Indeed, blood is thicker than water.

The idea of Christ’s sacrifice had been altered in the Western painting in a peculiar way, though, it reached its peak of subtlety. You can see this development in the central panel of the Ghent Altarpiece (the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb), which was finished in 1432 by Jan van Eyck.
The fountain as a symbol in art
The Lamb of God symbolizing Christ is shown standing on the altar with the blood issuing from his wounds filling the fountain, a symbolism of the Christian faith. The antependium on the upper portion of the front of the altar is inscribed with the words: ECCE AGNUS DEI QUI TOLLIT PECCATA MUNDI ("Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world"). The water from the lower part of the fountain gushes down to the streamway decorated with gemstones and runs toward the altar.
The fountain as a symbol in art
The same subject matter we can find in the miniature in the Book of Hours, a medieval prayer book attributed to the late XV century, it is assumed to be illuminated in Ghent.
Further, this motif was successfully continued in the Spanish culture with its bloody religious trad

Further, this motif was successfully continued in the Spanish culture with its bloody religious traditions like in this Mexican icon of the XVII century housed at the Brooklyn Museum.

The heart of the Garden of Eden

You can hardly find the better place for rest during a hot day than near a spring with cold water in the shade of a tree, just like a corner of paradise. That was the reason why a fountain became an actual detail as a symbol of the Garden of Eden and romantic love.
A yard of a monastery usually of a square shape was divided crosswise in four square parts by narrow paths, which had its own symbolic meaning. In the center of the path crossing they used to build a fountain or a well, some small source providing water in general and embodying purity of the faith and inexhaustible God’s grace. We cannot but mention in this connection Bathsheba, whose story is mentioned in the Holy Bible.
The fountain as a symbol in art
Paris Bordone (1500−1571). The Bathsheba Bathing
According to the Hebrew Bible a beautiful woman Bathsheba, the wife of warrior Uriah, was seduced by King David, and later was made pregnant by him. She bore a child Solomon by name, who succeeded David as king. The story has granted one of the famous subject matters in the fine arts since XI—XII centuries beginning with illustrations. In the story the beautiful lady bathed in the bath, which embodied the baptism. The image of Bathsheba as a rule symbolizes innocence and David’s image symbolizes her Master and a spouse intended to be purged before meeting her beloved man.
Karl Bryullov. The Bathsheba

Karl Bryullov. The Bathsheba

Life-giving spring

The popular subject matter of the orthodox icons is Mother of God with the Child in the fountain with the water pouring out (the Life Spring, Zoodochos Pigi monastery of Virgin Mary, Corfu). The tradition originated from the miracle-working spring near Constantinople, where the miraculous grace of the Mother of God had revealed. At the same time, the Life Giving Spring is attributed to the Mother of God.
The fountain as a symbol in art
We have to mention that Mary’s Spring really exists in the Holy Land in Nazareth, where the key Biblical events have taken place including the Annunciation. An underground spring in Nazareth traditionally served as the city’s main water source for several centuries, possibly millennia; however, it was not always referred to as "Mary's well" or "Mary's spring". Though, we dare to assume that the fountain could have evidenced the Holy Virgin. So, it is nor surprising that the fountain was related to the Annunciation Day, a spring feast celebrating a blossoming nature and full flowing springs. That is the reason why the Virgin Birth of Christ is related to a spring season and spring tides, and as a consequence, to the fountain. Depiction of the aestheticized water source in paintings is treated as a symbol of a new coming life as well as a revealed Faith.

Seeking eternal youth

The Italian fountains certainly deserve a special topic. These architect masterpieces resonated with the austere views of the advocates of Christianity appealing to exercise restraint and chasteness. The style of fountains of the Renaissance
The Renaissance is the period that began around the 14th century and ended at the late 16th century, traditionally associated primarily with the Italian region. The ideas and images of the Renaissance largely determined the aesthetic ideals of modern man, his sense of harmony, measure and beauty. Read more
and Baroque
The baroque style replaced the Renaissance, and it sought to shock the soul, in contrast to the Renaissance art, which kept the distance between an artwork and the audience. It surely succeeded: the pictorial pearls of those times are the true treasures. Read more
is full of pagan delight and its address to antiquity is the evidence of different ideas and values.
The idea of the fountain (or spring) of eternal youth (or the fountain of life giving water) gained its popularity in the late Middle Ages and had nothing to do with the religion. (Erotic had yielded its importance in the inner world of a person taking into account rather tough attitude of the medieval society to the body hygiene). Everybody had been seeking the miracle including Herodotus and Alexander III of Macedon.
The fountain as a symbol in art
Almost a century and a half before Cranach. Jacques Iverny. The Fountain of Youth, fragment of the mural.
The fountain as a symbol in art
It is not surprising that Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472−1553) produced his painting the Fountain of Youth (1546) when he was 74 years old. Alas, the winter of life is an ordeal. The subject matted is obviously has nothing to do with religion; old people sink in the water of the fountain alone or with somebody’s assistance. In a while they leave the pool young, put on stylish robes and enjoy a new lease of life. The park with the fountain embodies delights and carnal pleasure like in the Garden of Earthly Delights and the Wayfarer (or the Pedlar) by Bosch (1500 — 1510), though the feeling of the Last Judgement is still prevailing.
The fountain as a symbol in art

Putto making water life giving

The Sacred and Profane Love by Titian (1514) attracting attention of a viewer first of all by the depicted beautiful women is full of puzzles and mysteries. The shape of the fountain likely resembles a tomb-chest, though the cupid makes the water life giving. The images of a fountain and a tree have a lot of senses. Somebody treats them like a river with the life giving water and the Tree of Life producing leaves for healing of people (according to the book of Genesis, Apocalypse of John). Somebody associates the Tree of Life and the life giving water with the sacraments of the Church, baptism and the Eucharist. In this case the putto’s hands stirring the water in the fountain are sometimes related to the baptization, particularly to the blessing of water in the baptistery.
The fountain as a symbol in art

O tempora! O mores!

Dada artists were getting sick of refined symbolists, realists and other admirers of beauty depicting the languish world with cow-eyed girls walking along opulent gardens and parks dreamily looking at their reflections in water. Maybe that was the reason that encouraged Marcel Duchamp to offer his own source of delight, life and eternal youth.
For the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, in 1917 in New York the artist submitted t

For the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, in 1917 in New York the artist submitted the urinal entitled the Fountain. The ironic title of the object formalized its stand as a piece of art.

Nowadays the ready made object (the object becoming a piece of art because an artist claims it to be so) is recognized as a bench mark of a new development in the art of the XX century and the British art experts consider it the greatest artwork of the epoch.
The fountain as a symbol in art
Bruce Nauman inherited the tradition presenting different versions of the same fountain and the most popular among them is his Self Portrait as a Fountain, outplaying among others the masterpiece by Duchamp. He gave his answer to the question what makes an artist be an artist.
The fountain as a symbol in art
Jan Fabre, a Belgian multidisciplinary artist, playwright and stage director did not ignore the polysemantic symbol in his installation the Fountain of the world (as a young artist). A young man with his jeans unzipped is lying on his back among scattered grove stones (Fabre did love large-scale installations). Each 10 minutes he ejaculates a fountain of sperm symbolizing life and rejuvenation.
The only safe guess is that till artists exist the fountain will be desired for it implies too many senses.