Water symbols are many and varied. According to Professor Christopher Witcombe, Department of Art History, Sweet Briar College, Virginia, “The study of water in art may initially involve examining the different ways in which it has been represented.” For a full consideration of these various ways I’ve provided a link at the end of this essay to more of his compilation of image-ideas in the way water is represented in the arts.
Today however, my primary foci are the living waters, the waters of life and youth. According to Professor Witcombe the waters of life and youth, the waters of the fountain of youth, are associated with the Fons Vitae, the Font of Life and the hope in eternal life where all life “springs eternal.”
Hebe, Antonio Canova, 1800-1805
The mind of a poet often works in funny ways. My psyche lept suddenly from the spring at the base of Mt. Helicon to the foot of Pegasus coming down upon the stone and I thought at once this must be the nature of the Fons that began to pour there where the horse’s foot first struck.
Remembering the moment in the myth that most constellates its ‘soul’, that moment when the muses sing the waters and they begin to rise flooding the horizon approaching Olympian height, I remember how the foot of Pegasus comes down and the waters of the horse, now hippou krene, are halted in their creative arise. They begin reordering through Apollo Musagete, an eternity within the arts that both sings and dances, an eternity that re-mains (as in psychology's Hillmainian sense for the return of a main repressed) what is always springing forth in the beginning, puerlike and "forever young" from the depths of the material imagination.(for further references to waters of inspiration see my essay, Singing Water)
Both singly and sized, the water is drawn from an older order of mneme into Olympos (Gantz, Early Greek Myth -p54) to refresh it with eternal life. I am reminded it is through the spigot of Pegasus the fons of eternity pours ambrosia back through. The foot of Pegasus in that moment when it stomps upon Mt Helicon causes me to recall the raised arm of Hebe, cup bearer to the gods, the way Canova depicts it in the famous statue of Hebe pictured above. The one foot of Pegasus is like the raised arm of the youthful Hebe pouring ambrosia into the cup that, when it pours forth, constellates the image of the first fountain; just now it constellates for me the image of the archetypal fountain. The goddess, Hebe is the Greek image, an archetypal image for the fountain of Youth. The myths of Pegasus and Ganymede carry the image forward in time in mythopoetic ways.
Considering Canova’s Hebe, the ambrosia pours from the muthos of Olympos what the pitcher held in Hebe’s one hand and represents it pouring into the cup held in Hebe’s other hand. The cup is tilted not to hold the waters still but to redirect their currents. The cup resembles the foreground hoof in the star constellation, Pegasus. Preserved for all eternity, the Fons Vitae is depicted just so and
forever remembered this way in the night sky.
The idea that hope springs eternal emphasizes the idea that holds how there is this chance to become young again. Since there is no such thing as an old Eros wherever Eros really is, wherever eros is, life takes on life. There is always that place in life where even in old age life feels young. Belief in the existence of such a place literally begets legends that surround the quest for the fountain of Youth leading Ponce de León to Florida in 1513.
.......................................................................................................... Lucas Cranach, The Fountain of Youth, 1546
In his Historia General y Natural de las Indias of 1535, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo wrote that Ponce de León was looking for the waters of Bimini to cure his sexual impotence. (book XVI, ch. 9) A similar account appears in Francisco López de Gómara's Historia General de las Indias of 1551. (2nd part)
The account reminds me how to read a mythic image and get it wrong, even though a lot of good things, like Florida, and bad things like the death of de León in the midst of his third colonizing expedition, occur. The mythic image has a psychic reference. That is the one the artist, Lucas Cranach is seeing through in 1546 to paint, The Fountain of Youth.
But, perhaps in getting it wrong we get it right precisely because hope springs eternal right or wrong. Right and wrong have nothing to do with the muses who give these waters…
They are called goddesses from the earliest sources on, and their attitude to mankind is identical to that of the gods: they do not hesitate to destroy a mortal who dares to usurp their place (so Thamyris in Homer's Iliad, whom they maimed and deprived of his skill), and they are divinely contemptuous of humankind (it does not matter to them whether the poetry they inspire is true or false)
......... - The Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth & Religion (297-298)
Knowing the foot of Pegasus comes down upon stone it seems fitting that the inspiration should reemerge to mark the place of emergence of spring water via the images of stone fountains.
Eventually another sort of movement began to take shape culturally in the form of public water fountains for drinking. This kind of “fountain” movement began initially in Liverpool, England where the local government was granted the ability to buy out the private water companies in 1847. And so were built the first public baths followed closely by government encouragement toward building philanthropic public water fountains.
The Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain Association was inaugurated in 1859 with the requirement "That no fountain be erected or promoted by the Association which shall not be so constructed as to ensure by filters, or other suitable means, the perfect purity and coldness of the water."
Fountain Snow Hill Samuel Gurney The first public drinking fountain was built on Holborn Hill on the railings of Saint Sepulchre's church on Snow Hill, paid for by Samuel Gurney, and opened on 21 April 1859. True to its inscription, it really does re “place” the “cupbearer of the gods.”