The Fountain of Life, 16th century
Signed, upper left, with a monogram: B, [E, L,] A, S, C, O
Inscriptions on the pennant,1 scrolls,2 and banderole3
Oil on coniferous wood (probably pine)
73 x 45 1/2 in. (185.5 x 115.5 cm)
R. T. Miller, Jr. Fund, 1952
This brightly painted vision of the Last Days (based primarily on Revelation 21 and 22) opens a window onto Church dogma and attitudes towards Jews in early sixteenth-century Spain. While clearly Flemish and Eyckian in style, the origins of the painting and the identities of its creator and patron remain uncertain.
Within a hierarchical and stagelike structure, the Fountain of Life is here interpreted in terms of the triumph of the Church over the Synagogue.4 Enthroned on the top tier (or Heaven) is Christ flanked by Saint John the Evangelist and the Virgin; groups of music-making angels occupy the gardenlike middle tier;5 and in the lower tier, in front of the structure, are two groups of humans representing Ecclesia (or the Church, on the left) and Synagoga (or the Jews, on the right),6 flanking the fountain representing the "river, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb" described in Revelation 21.7 Among the many references to the Eucharist are the Agnus Dei;8 the hosts floating in the octagonal font; the sculpted phoenix and pelican on the wellhead;9 the inscription referring to grain and wine (note 2 above); and the superstructure of Christ's throne, which resembles a late medieval sacrament-tower.10 The text from the Song of Songs (note 3 above) on a banderole held by an angel alludes to baptism and presages the marriage between Christ and his church.11
The Oberlin panel is generally considered a copy of an Eyckian composition now in the Prado (called hereafter the Madrid panel) or, perhaps, a copy of the lost original for that work,12 which has a long afterlife in Spanish painting.13 In 1875 Madrazo identified the Madrid panel as a Flemish altarpiece given by Henry IV of Castile to the Monastery of Our Lady of the Parral, near Segovia, sometime between 1445 and 1459.14 Dating the Madrid panel to about 1455 and accepting the Flemish attribution, Bruyn (1958) suggested that the work's subject matter referred to the theft and desecration ("torture") of a Host by the Jews of Segovia in the second decade of the fifteenth century and its miraculous recovery, an event which led to the conversion of the local synagogue into the Church of Corpus Christi.15 Henry's confessor, the observant Franciscan Alonso de Espina, chronicled the episode and may have informed the panel's anti-Judaic iconography.16
Thus, we see juxtaposed in the terrestrial zone at the bottoms of the Madrid and the Oberlin panels, on Christ's proper right, resplendently dressed members of the Church--pope, emperor, and other worldly prelates and figures--and, on Christ's proper left, or "sinister" side, the Jews, led by the figure of Synagogue, in disarray, complete with the pointed hats imposed on them at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.17
According to Bruyn, the Oberlin Fountain of Life is a copy of the Madrid panel, and was executed around 1500, probably by a Spanish hand, for the Cathedral of St. Jerome, Palencia, where the panel is thought to have been until 1812 (see Provenance). Bruyn tentatively identified one of the coats of arms on the panel (to the right of the tower) as that of the Espina family, and noted that Espina was retired and living in Palencia by 1492. Bruyn identified the coat of arms on the left as that of the Castilian Girón family, which had a branch in Palencia.
A decade later (1968), however, César Pemán y Pemartin convincingly identified the right-hand coat of arms as that of the Spanish Loaysa family, and speculated that the presence of the Loaysa and Girón coats of arms pointed to Don Garc’a de Loaysa y Girón, Archbishop of Toledo, as the likely patron of the work.18 More recently (1994), Fernando Collar de Cáceres, taking into account the monogram that appears on the Oberlin panel, has suggested that it may be a careful copy of the Madrid panel made around 1592 by Cristóbal de Velasco (d. 1617), the son of Luis de Velasco (active 1555-1606), who has long been suspected to be tied to the Oberlin panel. He worked for Girón in the Monastery of Our Lady of the Parral, near Segovia, sometime before 1600.19
In an unpublished work-in-progress, Barbara von Barghahn argues that the source of both the Madrid and Oberlin panels was a painting by Jan van Eyck for John I of Portugal, executed in Portugal in 1428-29 and destroyed in the great Portuguese earthquake of 1755.20 In her view, the two copies were made as wedding presents for two of John's sons, the heir apparent Prince Duarte, and his brother Don Pedro. According to Barghahn, the architecture in the Oberlin and Madrid panels (as well as the alleged lost original) reflect the topography of a shrine dedicated to Christ at Braga, in northern Portugal.
Whatever the details of its patronage, iconography, or function, the Oberlin Fountain of Life was not meant as a copy in the modern sense of "fake" or "reproduction." Rather, its maker was attempting to capture and disseminate something of the sacred power of a major prototype.21
D. A. McColl
Chapel of St. Jerome, Cathedral of Palencia (ca. 1780), and seized by a French general in 1812 22
Paris art trade (1863)
Collection Fernand Schutz, Paris (1913)
Collection Mrs. Ogden L. Mills, New York
With Parke-Bernet Galleries, Inc., New York (as by Lancelot Blondeel), from whom purchased in 1952
Ghent, World's Fair, 1913. Exposition universelle et internationale de Gand. L'art ancien dans les Flandres. Région de l'Escaut. Cat. no. 552 (as "attributed to Lancelot Blondeel").
New York, M. Knoedler & Company, Inc., 1954. Paintings and Drawings from Five Centuries: Collection Allen Memorial Art Museum. 3 - 21 February. Cat. no. 33.
The Brooklyn Museum, 1956. Religious Painting, 15th-19th Century: An Exhibition of European Paintings from American Collections. 2 October - 13 November. Cat. no. 27.
Ponz, Antonio. Viaje de España, seguido de los dos tomos del Viaje fuera de Espana. Vol. 11. 1783. Reprint edited by Casto Maria del Rivero. Madrid, 1947, p. 992.
Madrazo, Pedro de. "El triunfo de la Iglesia sobre la Sinagoga, caudro en tabla del siglo XV attribuido ˆ Jan van Eyck." Museo espaol de Antigüedades 4 (1875), p. 40.
Weale, W. H. J. Hubert and Jan van Eyck. London and New York, 1908, p. 165.
Justi, C. Miscellaneen aus drei Jahrhunderten spanischen Kunstlebens. Vol. 1. Berlin, 1908, p. 300.
Maeterlinck, L. L'énigme des primitifs français. Ghent, 1921, p. 48.
Post, P. "Der Stifter des Lebensbrunnens der Van Eyck." Jahrbuch der preussischen Kunstsammlungen 43 (1922), p. 120.
Vielva Ramos, Mat’as. Monograf’a acerca de la catedral de Palencia. Palencia, 1923, pp. 60ff.
Maeterlinck, L. Une École préeyckienne inconnue. Paris and Brussels, 1925, text under pl. 31, fig. 55.
Dvorák, M. -Das Rätsel der Kunst der Brüder van Eyck. Munich, 1925, p. 128.
Pächt, Otto. "Panofsky's Early Netherlandish Painting II." The Burlington Magazine 98 (1956), p. 271, n. 15.
Religious Painting, 15th-19th Century: An Exhibition of European Paintings from American Collections. Exh. cat., The Brooklyn Museum, 1956, cat. no. 27.
Bruyn, Josua. Van Eyck problemen: De Levensbron, het werk van een leerling van Jan van Eyck. Utrecht, 1957, p. 41 and passim.
Bruyn, Josua. "A Puzzling Picture at Oberlin: The Fountain of Life." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 16, no. 1 (Fall 1958), pp. 4-17.
Pächt, Otto. "Review of Bruyn Van Eyck problemen: De Levensbron, het werk van een leerling van Jan van Eyck." Kunstchronik 12 (1959), pp. 254ff.
Berliner, Rudolph. "Ein Betrag zur Ikonographie der Christusdarstellungen." Das Münster 14 (1961), p. 99.
Stechow, Wolfgang. European and American Paintings and Sculpture in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College. Oberlin, 1967, pp. 140-42, fig. 42.
Einem, H. von. "Bemerkungen zur Sinneinheit des Genter Altares." In Miscellanea Jozef Duverger. Vol. 1. Ghent, 1968, pp. 24ff, n. 21.
Pemán y Pemartin, César. "Contribución al estudio de la iconograf’a de la Fuente de Vida Eyckiana del Museo del Prado." In Miscellanea Jozef Duverger. Vol. 1. Ghent, 1968, pp. 66-82.
Faggin, Giorgio T. The Complete Paintings of the Van Eycks. Introduction by R. Hughes. New York, 1968, p. 99, cat. no. 36.
Pemán y Pemartin, César. Juan van Eyck y España. Cádiz, 1969, pp. 72ff.
Philip, Lotte Brand. The Ghent Altarpiece and the Art of Jan van Eyck. Princeton, 1971, p. 11 n. 19, and p. 50 n. 94.
Bermejo, E. La Pintura de los primitivos flamencos en España. Vol. 1. Madrid, 1980, p. 48.
Dhanens, Elisabeth. Hubert and Jan Van Eyck. New York, 1980, p. 155.
Miller, Naomi. "Paradise Regained: Medieval Garden Fountains." In Medieval Gardens. Edited by E. B. MacDougall. Dumbarton Oaks Colloquium on the History of Landscape Architecture 10, Washington, D.C., 1986, p. 141, and fig. 4, opposite p. 143.
"Behind the Cover: The Search for an Illustration Reveals a New World of Scholarship." Oberlin Alumni Magazine 82 (1986), inside cover and caption, facing page.
Balis, A., M. D’az Padrón, C. Van de Velde, and H. Vlieghe. La Peinture flamande au Prado. Translated by Manuel Martens, John Rosbach, and Marnix Vincent. Antwerp, 1989, p. 44.
Steppe, J. K. "De echo van het Lams Gods van gebroeders van Eyck en Spanje." In Het Lam Gods: een recent onderzoek met verrassende resultaten (RAM Rapport 4). Maaseik, 1990, pp. 3-56 and figs. 11-14.
Bermejo, Mart’nez, E. "Influencia de Van Eyck en la pintura española." Archivo Español de Arte 63 (1990), pp. 555-69.
Collar de Cáceres, Fernando. "Una pintura, un pintor y un arzobispo. En torno a una copia de la Fuente de la Vida." Estudios Segovianos 91 (1994), pp. 755-76, p. 7600, ill.
Stokstad, Marilyn, and Santiago Alcolea Blanch. A Catalogue of Spanish Paintings in Public Collections of the United States. Barcelona, 1989.
Structurally the painting is in good condition. The panel is composed of our vertical members, with a strip (1 3/4 in. wide) added along the bottom edge (not contemporary with the painting). The panel has been thinned and cradled. Restorer's paint in the upper right and left corners of the panel indicates that the image was probably originally housed in a lobed/trefoil frame. The painting was treated at the ICA (Intermuseum Laboratory) in 1953 and in 1987. Losses associated with vertical splits in the panel (possibly resulting from cradling) have been filled and inpainted, as have random blisters, scratches, and localized craquelure.
The combination of the softwood support (pine) and the calcium sulphate (gypsum) ground indicates a Spanish origin for the piece. The gypsum ground was applied with a brush in several layers, apparently in order to mask the imperfections in the surface of the wood; marks in the gesso can be seen in areas where the surface paint is thin. The paint and ground are well adhered, except in those areas where there have been losses and the ground has been exposed as a result. The paint itself is thinly applied, although not in the Flemish manner, i.e., from dark to light, but rather building up areas of shadow over the light areas. There is a general lack of the "jewel-like" quality of paintings by Jan van Eyck, which is the result of the application of multiple layers of tinted glazes.23 Pentimenti indicate changes in the spacing of letters on the banners held by the foreground figures.
1. In Hebrew: "Give thanks to the Lord for He is good; for endures forever His steadfast love" (from Psalms 106:1, 107:1, 118:1 and 29, and 136:1). Identified by Josua Bruyn, "A Puzzling Picture at Oberlin: The Fountain of Life," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 16, no. 1 (Fall 1958), p. 17 n. 7.
2. On the scroll at the high priest's feet, in Hebrew: "Remembrance He has made for His wonderful works, gracious and merciful is the Lord. Food He has given to those who fear Him" (Psalms 111:4, 5). On the scroll to the right, in Hebrew: "more than at the time their grain and their wine abound. In peace will I...." (Psalms 4:8,9). Identified by Josua Bruyn, "A Puzzling Picture at Oberlin: The Fountain of Life," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 16, no. 1 (Fall 1958), p. 17 n. 7.
3. On the banderole held by the angel, Fons (h)ortorum puteus aquarum vivencium: "Fountain of the gardens, well of living waters" (Song of Songs 4:15). Identified by Josua Bruyn, "A Puzzling Picture at Oberlin: The Fountain of Life," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 16, no. 1 (Fall 1958), p. 17 n. 7.
4. For fuller discussions of the complex iconography of the panel and its relation to the Ghent Altarpiece (1425-32), see Josua Bruyn, "A Puzzling Picture at Oberlin: The Fountain of Life," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 16, no. 1 (Fall 1958), pp. 4-17; César Pemán y Pemartin, Juan van Eyck y España (Cádiz, 1969), pp. 81-92; and Otto Pächt, Van Eyck and the Founders of Early Netherlandish Painting, foreword by A. Rosenauer, ed. M. Schmidt-Dengler, trans. D. Britt (London, 1994), pp. 127-35.
5. The relationship of the painting to late medieval music-making is discussed in Alexandra Goulaki-Voutira, "Die musizierenden Engel des Genter Altars," Imago musicae 5 (1980), pp. 65-74; and "Behind the Cover: The Search for an Illustration Reveals a New World of Scholarship," Oberlin Alumni Magazine 82 (1986), text on inside cover and photo caption, facing page.
6. This is an abbreviation and variation of Revelation 7:9 and 21:8. On the depiction of Synagogue and Ecclesia, see W. S. Seiferth, Synagogue and the Church in the Middle Ages: Two Symbols in Art and Literature (New York, 1970); Bianca Kishuhnel, "The Personifications of Church and Synagogue in Byzantine Art: Towards a History of the Motif," Jewish Art 19/20 (1993/94), pp. 112-23; and Ruth Mellinkoff, Outcasts: Signs of Otherness in Northern European Art of the Late Middle Ages, 2 vols., California Studies in the History of Art 32 (Berkeley, Calif., 1993).
7. See also Revelation 7:17.
8. John the Baptist's words ("Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world...," John 1:29) have, since the seventh century, been chanted at the point in the mass when the breaking of the bread takes place. On the eucharistic connotations of the lamb, see most recently David A. Robertson et al., Ecce Agnus Dei: Sacrificial Imagery of Christ, 1350-1750, from the Collection of Loyola University, Chicago (exh. cat., The Martin D'Arcy Gallery of Art, The Loyola University Museum of Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque Art, Chicago, 1994), particularly Appendix I (biblical citations), pp. 55-63.
9. For Christians of the period, both pelican and phoenix symbolize Christ's death and resurrection. See, for instance, Miri Rubin, Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (Cambridge, England, 1991), pp. 310-11.
10. Apparently a literal interpretation of Revelation 21:3: "Behold the tabernacle of God is with man..."
11. Christ's marriage is here seen to be consummated in the New Jerusalem, the ultimate fulfillment of Christ's church on earth (Revelation 21:2). On connections between the Eucharist, Baptism, and the Fountain of Life, see D. Roggen, "Fons Vitae van Klaas Sluter te Dijon," Revue belge d'archéologie et d'histoire de l'art 5 (1935), pp. 107-18; idem, "De Kalvarieberg van Champmol," Gentsche Bijdragen tot de Kunstgeschiedenis 3 (1936), pp. 76-79; and Britt Waddell, Fons Pietatis: Ein ikonographische Studie (Gšteborg, 1969). Ironically, forced baptisms were a common way of "converting" Jews in early modern Europe.
12. Oil on panel, 181 x 116 cm, Madrid, Museo del Prado, inv. 1511. For other copies, see Wolfgang Stechow, European and American Paintings and Sculpture in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College (Oberlin, 1967), p. 42, with bibliography. See also Giorgio T. Faggin, The Complete Paintings of the Van Eycks, intro. R. Hughes (New York, 1968), p. 99, cat. no. 36.
13. On the reception of Jan's painting in Spain, see César Pemán y Pemartin, Juan van Eyck y España (Cádiz, 1969); J. K. Steppe, "De echo van het Lam Gods van gebroeders van Eyck en Spanje," in Het Lam Gods: een recent onderzoek met verrassende resultaten, RAM Rapport 4 (Maaseik, 1990), pp. 3-56; E. Bermejo Mart’nez, "Influencia de Van Eyck en la pintura española," Archivo Español de Arte 63 (1990), pp. 555-69; and Anne Simonson Fuchs, "The Virgin of the Councillors by Luis Dalmau (1443-1445): The Contract and its Eyckian Execution," Gazette des Beaux-Arts ser. 6, vol. 99 (1982), pp. 45-54.
15. See Benzion Netanyahu, The Origins of the Inquisition in 15th-Century Spain (New York, 1995), pp. 181-82. On the cult of Corpus Christi, see M. Rubin, Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (Cambridge, England, 1991), and idem, "Imagining the Jew: The Late Medieval Eucharistic Discourse," in R. Po-chia Hsia and Hartman Lehmann, In and Out of the Ghetto: Jewish-Gentile Relations in Late Medieval and Early Modern Germany (Washington, D.C., and Cambridge, England, 1995), pp. 177-208. For a more favorable depiction of Jews by van Eyck, see L. Dequeker, "Jewish Symbolism in the Ghent Altarpiece of Jan van Eyck (1432)," Dutch Jewish History: Proceedings of the Symposium on the History of the Jews in the Netherlands, November 28-December 3, 1982, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, ed. J. Michman and T. Levie (Jerusalem, 1984), pp. 347-62.
16. See Josua Bruyn, Van Eyck problemen: De Levensbron, het werk van een leerling van Jan van Eyck (Utrecht, 1957), p. 41 and passim; and idem, "A Puzzling Picture at Oberlin: The Fountain of Life ," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 16, no. 1 (1958), pp. 10-11. Bruyn's hypothesis helps explain why the costumes of some of the worldly princes on the left appear to date to around 1415. On Espina, see also Benzion Netanyahu, The Origins of the Inquisition in 15th-Century Spain (New York, 1995), pp. 726-35.
17. See Anthony Cutler, "Innocent III and the Distinctive Clothing of the Jews and Muslims," Studies in Medieval Culture 3, ed. J. R. Sommerfeldt (Kalamazoo, Mich., 1970), pp. 92-116.
18. César Pemán y Pemartin, Juan van Eyck y España (Cádiz, 1969), pp. 72ff.; and letter in the museum files dated 5 August 1969. According to Pemán, two of the figures in the Madrid and Oberlin panels represent the two Flemish ambassadors who visited John II of Castile in 1429 and who made a pilgrimage to the Church of Corpus Christi in Segovia in response to the miraculous recovery of the stolen Host.
19. Fernando Collar de Cáceres, "Una pintura, un pintor y un arzobispo. En torno a una copia de la Fuente de la Vida," Estudios Segovianos 91 (1994), pp. 755-76.
20. From a letter of 21 November 1992 in the museum files; and from a conversation with the author, 6 September 1996. I am grateful to Dr. Barghahn for sharing her research. She has identified in the panel figures representing Henry the Navigator, John I, the two sons, the bastard son Alonso (future Duke of Bragan?a), and Charlemagne. Furthermore, she interprets the monogram not as "Velasco," but rather as "Vasco," a common Portuguese name, and the signature of Vasco Fernandes do Casal (also known as Vasco Manoel or Vasco), a court illuminator from Viseu working for King Alfonso V in 1445.
21. On the copying of religious images in this period, see Larry A. Silver, "Fountain and Source: A Rediscovered Eyckian Icon," Pantheon 41 (1983), pp. 95-104; and Retaining the Original: Multiple Originals, Copies, and Reproductions, Studies in the History of Art 20 (Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts Symposium Papers VII) (Hanover, N.H., and London, 1985), particularly the papers of Richard E. Spear, Gary Vikan, and Jonathan J. G. Alexander.
22. The Oberlin panel is "with the greatest probability" (Wolfgang Stechow, Catalogue of European and American Paintings and Sculpture in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College [Oberlin, 1967], p. 140) the picture seen by Antonio Ponz in the Chapel of St. Jerome, Cathedral of Palencia, around 1780, and later seized by a French general (Hugo?) during the Napoleonic wars. If so, it can be traced to the Paris art trade, in 1863, where it was seen in the house of the restorer Haro by the French art critic, W. Bürger (Théophile Thoré).
23. See the condition report and proposal for treatment of Tom Caley, dated 14 November 1989, and treatment record of 15 November 1989; the condition report of Helen Mar Parkin, dated 27 May 1988; the thorough report on the work's condition of Ruth Barach Cox and Philip Vance, dated 15 October 1986; and the treatment record of Ruth Barach Cox, dated 17 July 1987, all in the museum files.