The Fountain of Youth: Dream of Eternal Life

People have always been preoccupied with the question of how to live longer, retain their youthful looks for the longest possible time and reverse time that always marches forward. The idea that there could be a place in the world that would miraculously enable people to stop, reverse time and have their youth back might have been very appealing. Thus, similar to the legends surrounding the Elixir of Life and the Philosopher’s Stone, the Fountain of Youth is said to be a spring that restores youth to people who either bath in it or drink from it. Alexander the Great allegedly searched for it, and some waters’ cleansing and healing properties must have contributed much to the myth’s enduring popularity. Naturally, therefore, the idea also stirred many artists’ imagination, and below are four depictions of the Fountain of Youth that idealises the image of the mythical place that can grant the impossible.

The Fountain of Youth [1546] by Lucas Cranach the Elder 

The Romans were the most famous proponents of baths and bathing (the Baths of Diocletian in Rome are said to once accommodate more than 3000 people), and it is possible that the link between bathing and health, and thus, rejuvenation, was reinforced by them, too. In the painting above, German Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472 – 1553) depicts the bathing tradition of the Middle Ages. The painting shows a big fountain, inside of which people, mostly women, are seen enjoying themselves and their rejuvenated looks. Those who are already in the water are depicted either already youthful or on the point of becoming so. Around the structure, old and sick people can be seen either carried or carted to the Fountain so that they can also receive its miracle. The barren land to the left stands for the old age that people are hasting to leave as they make their way to the Fountain and their eternal youth, symbolised by the lush vegetation on the right. The sensual and erotic motives of the procedure are further reinforced by the Venus with the Cupid crowning the Fountain’s column. In the upper right corner, a table is also seen laid for celebration. People who have already received their youthful appearances are now feasting. This is a dreamy portrayal of the mythical place that resembles the Garden of Eden.

The Fountain of Youth [1411/16], Fresco in the Sala Baronale, Castello della Manta, Saluzzo

Throughout history, the Fountain of Youth was rumoured to be in the Caribbean (the mythical land of Beimeni), in Florida (the travels of Juan Ponce de Leon) and in the magical forest of Brocéliande (Paimpont), among many other locations. The fresco above is from a castle (Castello della Manta) in Saluzzo, Piedmont region, Italy. It shows a hexagonal Fountain of Youth, and bears a striking resemblance to the painting above by Lucas Cranach. Similar to it, the people in the fresco are seen arriving to the Fountain old and haggard on the left, and, after taking their clothes off and bathing in the magical water, emerge youthful and invigorated on the right. The sensual experience of bathing is again underscored, especially by the couple in the Fountain who engage in erotic games, as well as by the statue of the Cupid with a bow on the Fountain’s top. It is possible that the artist of this fresco intended it to have a more satirical effect, especially since a person resembling a jester can be seen to the left, and the work overall has a more comical effect than other depictions on this list.

The Garden of Delights, Representing the Joyful Influence Venus Exerts on Mortals [1466] by Cristoforo de Predis, based on astrological treatise De Sphaerae [1230]

The illustration to the right by medieval illuminator Cristoforo de Predis (1440-1486) shows the celebration of Venus (when star Venus is the brightest in the sky). The fountain in the middle of the garden of delights is most probably the Fountain of Youth. Joyous people are seen bathing in it, while wine is served to them. The orchestra is playing in the background, while, in the foreground, a couple of lovers can be seen, as well as a man with a lute and a table full of food. The secluded nature of the garden, with its high walls separating the party, signals that it may be a private affair for the chosen few, probably the aristocracy. The two entrance doors shown may also symbolise the dual, transformative character of the process that the people in the fountain undergo – youthful looks are being restored to them, and they have shed their previous “selves”. It is now the time of Venus, which means the time to enjoy the pleasures of love, music, food and wine.

Fountain of Youth [1873/81] by Edward Burne-Jones

At first glance, Edward Burne-Jones’s depiction of the Fountain of Youth may appear like a crude artwork, but it still hides its own symbolic delights, even if it was left incomplete (the painter was returning to this motive several times in his career, and this artwork was deemed too ambitious). Rather then focusing on the Fountain itself (as other paintings did), the aim here seemed to be capture the effect of the magical water on people, including their desire for the transformation and their ecstasy during and after the bathing – the psychology of the experience. The image of the Fountain is also different as this wonder is presented almost like a door carved on the side of the stone mountain, from which a waterfall originates. As other works on this theme, Burne-Jones emphasises the same stark divide between the right and the left sides of the artwork – the contrast between the two different states – before and after the bathing process, but his personages do not just appear old or young. While his newcomers are dressed in black, slouching, the ones on the right, who had already bathed in the waters, are shown in white, standing or sitting erect, confident and glorious. Even if the artist’s final intention was to depict them in other, brighter colours, it is still clear that they “have reached the other shore”, both literally and symbolically – their physical and spiritual journeys have now been completed.

Thoughts on Papyrus is now on Facebook! All new posts will also appear on: – Follow & Like!


7 thoughts on “The Fountain of Youth: Dream of Eternal Life

  1. Enjoyed the gallery of images on this fascinating topic – the style of the medieval paintings was familiar (even if I’d not seen a couple of them before) but the Burne-Jones was intriguing, leaving me to wonder how it might’ve turned out if he’d completed it.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. We went to Birmingham last year to see the collection of Pre-Raphaelite art normally on display in the city’s art gallery, but when we got there we found most of the building was closed off for essential maintenance and refurbishment, and precious little else on offer. Last time I went I was luckier: the Burne-Jones Holy Grail tapestries were available to view on one of their periodic outings as well as most of their PRB collection.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. That’s interesting. I would love to visit Birmingham one day, and I guess seeing the Holy Grail tapestries is quite something! I actually had a number of similar museum experiences in the past where I went with that single purpose to see something and was disappointed – one time my outdated guide book was “to blame”, and another time it was the refurbishments, as in your case. I learnt to take it in my stride, but it is still quite a shocker when it happens!

          Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s