A Sweet Briar College Learning Resource

H2O - The Mystery, Art, and Science of Water

Water in Art
Professor Chris Witcombe


Many cultures believe that life sprang from water. From this has emerged the idea of "living waters". The Biblical prophet Jeremiah, for example, called God the "fountain of living waters" (2.13). Jeremiah himself is represented by the Netherlandish sculptor Claus Sluter as one of five Old Testaments prophets encircling the base of the so-called "Moses Fountain", a holy well or fountain at the Chartreuse de Champmol, a monastery near Dijon in France. The water of the fountain itself was associated symbolically with the Fons Vitae (the "Fountain of Life") and the hope of life eternal.

(image source: Web Gallery of Art)
Claus Sluter
Jeremiah, from the Moses Fountain, 1395-1406

It would appear that the reference in Genesis (2.10) to "A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers" became visually conflated with Jeremiah's fountain and represented as a fountain. A six-sided fountain enclosled within a colonnade supporting an elaborate Gothic structure appears in a miniature by the Limbourg Brothers.

(image source: Christus Rex)
Limbourg Brothers
Fall of Man, and Expulsion
from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, before 1416

Bathing or imbibing the waters of the Fountain of Life conferred immortality. It is said the Alexander the Great, who travelled to the world's end, was searching for the fountain of immortality.

A form of immortality is the chance to become youthful again. Belief in the existance of a "Fountain of Youth" was so strong that in 1513, the governor of Puerto Rico, Ponce de Leon, set off with three ships to find it in the land of Bimini (instead he discovered Florida). A painting by Lucas Cranach shows old women entering a "fountain of youth" to emerge on the other side as young girls again.

(image source: Carol Gerten)
Lucas Cranach the Elder
Fountain of Youth, 1546

Artists (sculptors, architects) also created stone fountains to mark the point of emergence of water from a spring, or a pipe, or an aqueduct.


H20 - The Mystery, Art, and Science of Water
Chris Witcombe and Sang Hwang
Sweet Briar College