The significance of water, especially that of the spring with healing water,
is a very effective image for the tangible presence of God among His people.
The image at the left is entitled ‘The Virgin and Child with Angels by a
Fountain’ by Bernaert Van Orley. (1492-1541)
There are basically two
traditions of the Annunciation iconography: one situating it at a cistern or
fountain, the other favoring the interior of a house. Both are influenced by
the apocryphal gospels. In this view, the fountain at the Annunciation scene
of the apocryphal writings of St. James has a profound meaning. It can be a
sign of Christ’s Incarnation in Mary’s womb. 1 To this day, the
Greek Orthodox Christians venerate a wellspring of Nazareth where the
Annunciation might have taken place.2 Since the Middle Ages,
Western representations of the Annunciation normally placed the event
indoors: in a bedroom or private chamber, where the Virgin – usually at
prayer – finds herself surprised by the angel.
About the year 1400, however, a new version of the Annunciation scene suddenly
appeared in European paintings, which portrays Mary at the moment of the
Annunciation in a richly flowering garden. The garden is walled (hortus
conclusus) and objects, which might include a small hexagonal fountain and
an open spring or well, often surround Mary. The origin of many of these
symbols is biblical; for example, the enclosed garden and the sealed
fountain in its midst are taken from the Song of Songs.3 The
oldest example of a western representation of the Annunciation with Mary
kneeling next to a source and with a pitcher or amphora in her hand is dated
back to the seventh century (Milano, ivory cover).
The Byzantine mosaic portraying the Annunciation at the well of San Marco in
Venice from the 1220 AD4 (see image to the left) shows Mary
fetching water as the Angel of the Lord approached her. Again, we
can interpret this scene in terms of Mary being the channel or aqueduct to
bring the fountain of life giving waters to this earth, At the same time,
the scene of Mary holding an empty pitcher can also remind us of the
wedding at Cana where Mary tells the servants, or us, ‘Do whatever He
The first known Marian painting to use garden symbols is not an
Annunciation scene but a Mother-Child representation (see image on
the right) probably dating from the beginning of the fifteenth
century. 5 Mary is crowned with ‘Lauda Maria’ inscribed in her
halo. Around her we see the city gates, the ark, the rod of Aaron, the
burning bush, the fountain, the fleece, the rose, the closed door
reminding us of the Song of Songs.
The earliest iconographic use of the images of the Song 4:12, with
Mary and her Son, is on the painted parchment cover of a thirteenth
century Psalter now in the library of the government in Bamberg,
Germany (see image on the left). The Madonna with child is enthroned
on a rainbow and surrounded by four hallowed heads and by four larger
typological figures: Aaron with his rod, Jesse with his root, Ezekiel
pointing to the closed gate and in the lower right Solomon pointing to
a fountain. At least from the beginning of the thirteenth
century, we often find Mary either as Virgin at the Annunciation or as
the Mother with child encircled by emblems referring to biblical
themes. However, the enclosed garden and the sealed fountain do play a
minor role in Marian iconography before the fourteenth century.
The Wyscherad Codex, for instance, from the eleventh century
shows the Nativity scene with emblems of the burning bush, Aaron’s
blooming rod and Ezekiel’s closed gate; but no garden or fountain.
At the beginning of the sixteenth century the images of Mary surrounded by
symbols as the fountain is now applied to Mary as the Immaculate
Conception. Devotional pictures of the Immaculate Conception
surround Our Lady with symbols attributed to her purity (see image
on the right).7 In the center on the bottom we see an
overflowing fountain (fons ortorum) watering an olive tree (Olivia speciosa) to its left. On the right bottom we see a well
(puteus aquarum viventium) and in the background the outline of the Holy
City, Jerusalem. All of this is shown in a setting of a closed
garden (hortus conclusus).8
A similar portrayal (on the right) is found in the Manual of the
Arch confraternity dedicated to the Immaculate Conception with the
fons signatus to her left. 9
In the paintings of Mount Athos, Mary is depicted as life-giving spring. On a tapestry in
the Louvre, Mary and her child are shown in the hortus conclusus
next to a fountain. On the left Moses is seen as he makes his way
through the Red Sea and on the opposite side the lame at the pond
The icon of Life giving Fountain is well known in Eastern Christianity.10
It is not only related to the phenomenon of the fifth
century but also to Mary’s maternity and her role for God’s
children. The icon shows Mary as receiver of God’s Life who then
distributes these waters of both spiritual and physical healing to
humanity. As such Mary is depicted here as Mediatrix, Intercessor
and even Co-Redemptrix.
Our survey of Mary
as Fountain or Well in art offers a rich documentation of biblical
as well as doctrinal reflections on Mary’s person and role in
salvation history. Images of Mary without child in connection with
the well point to her emptiness of self and readiness to be filled
with the waters of salvation as at the Annunciation. They also show
her interwovenness with symbols of the Old Testament foreshadowing
her predilection as sealed fountain in the garden of delight. They
reveal Mary’s virginal surrender to the waters that will flow from
her and tacitly to her sinlessness as well. Mary with Child and
fountain point to her divine and inclusively also to her spiritual
-Sr. M Danielle Peters
Compare: E. Gössmann, Die Verkündigung an Maria im Dogmatischen
Verständnis des Mittelalters, Max Huber Munich, 1957, p. 29.
Compare: M. J. Lagrange, Evangile selon Saint Luc, Paris, 1921, p. 28.
See Brian E. Daley, The “closed Garden” and the “Sealed
Fountain”: Song of Songs 4:12 in the Late Medieval Iconography of
Mary. In: Medieval Gardens, Dumberton Oaks Research Library, Washington DC 1986.
 See: Wolfgang Braunfels, Die
Verkündigung, Düsseldorf 1949, image 4.
 Alfred Stange, Deutsche Malerei der
Gotik, Berlin 1938, III.37.
 Henrik Cornell, Biblia pauperum, 1925, 125.
 The image to the left is entitled ‘Symbol of Mary’ from the 17th
Stefan Geissel, Geschichte der
Verehrung Marias im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert. Ein Beitrag zur
Religionswissenschaft und Kunstgeschichte.
Herder Verlag Freiburg im Breisgau 1910, p. 250.
 Manuale Archiconfraternitas. Sub titulo: Immaculatae Conceptionis Deiparae Virginis
Mariae.Vienna Austria 1642.
 The font, fountain or basin is pictured as two basins, one in another.
The font in which we see Mary with her Son is the ‘source,’ God who is Life. The waters
flowing from the basins are collected in a pool for healing. People of all
stages of life come to the water. In later traditions, the fish seen swimming
in the pool relate to a legendary story of fish jumping from a frying pan to
the pool, and the deeper mystical meaning of fish as the faithful seeking life. See: Virginia Kimball,
Theotokos of the Life Giving Fountain, STL thesis, 2000,