Stags at Fountains, Peacocks, Kantharoi

A Paleo-Christian Image Type

One common type of image in the 5th and 6th centuries has a fountain in the center and two stags approaching it from left and right. Sometimes there are also two peacocks above the stags, as in the floor mosaic shown above. Or the peacocks may replace the stags at the base of the fountain (example). Often, the fountain is shaped like a kantharos, a wine cup used in banquets in ancient Greece (example). Or the central element may be a simple kantharos with no visual allusion to a fountain other than water brimming at the top. Luxuriant vines are often seen growing up from the kantharos and filling the spaces around it (example). In later images the central symbol of Christ can be a cross or staurogram
a cross with a hook at the top
(example). An early example of this is in the apse at St. John Lateran.


The stags and fountain refer to Psalm 41:2, "As the hart panteth after the fountains of water; so my soul panteth after thee, O God." Augustine interprets the stags of this verse as Christian penitents in general and catechumens non-Christians who are preparing for baptism in particular. He adds that this psalm is part of the baptismal liturgy in his time.1 In the mosaic above, this connection to baptism is emphasized by the base of the fountain, which has the hexagonal shape common among baptismal fonts of the time (and sometimes still seen today).

The fountain base also has a spout on the side facing the viewer, from which flows a representation of the river that God put in Eden "to water paradise" (Genesis 2:10) and that feeds the earth's four great rivers, two of which are represented at the base of the image.2 This is a comment on baptism, which in Christian doctrine restores a person to the original innocence of Eden.

On the sides next to the spout are rectangular insets resembling windows, as if the base were a house or temple. Water flowing from the Temple is the subject of the prophet's vision in Ezechiel 47:1-12. One of the significations that the commentators see in the Temple in that passage is Christ, whose side flowed with water on the Cross, and who spoke of his own body as a temple that would be resurrected in three days (John 2:19-21).3


Many early Christian writers weave the themes of baptism and resurrection together.4 This is one reason why the peacock is interchangeable with the stag in representing catechumens. The peacock was inherited from ancient Greek iconography as a symbol of immortality, purportedly because its flesh did not rot.5 The peacock's beauty may also explain its function in these images. Didymus writes in De Trinitate, "The Holy Spirit renovates us in baptism, and in union with the Father and the Son brings us back from a state of deformity to our pristine beauty."6


The kantharos is also an inherited symbol of resurrection to eternal life. For the ancient Greeks, this was because of its association with wine – both because of wine's ability to induce a godlike euphoria and because the vines that produce it must "die" and be "born again" each year.7 A mosaic in the ancient basilica at Ohrid christianizes this theme by having the peacock pair come to the kantharos-fountain to feast on its grapes, symbolizing the faithful who come to Christ, "the vine" (John 15:1,5) who grants resurrection and immortality.

The kantharos also appears in paleo-Christian images of the sacrifice of Melchizedek, which was considered a type of the Eucharist. Like Baptism, the Eucharist is a "memorial of the Lord's Passion and Resurrection."8 (examples from Santa Maria Maggiore and Sant'Apollinare in Classe).

The vines growing from the kantharos are also inherited from classical funerary art. This sarcophagus, for example, features a "vintage" scene that expresses the harmony and immortality of the natural world.


Given their symbolic assurance of resurrection and immortality, it is no surprize that variations of the stag-and-fountain image type are common in funereal imagery in this period. In this sarcophagus, for example, a small, stylized image of a fountain, flanked by the four rivers of Genesis 2, lies beneath a staurogram, a symbol of Christ to which the peacocks approach. In the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the mosaic in the west apse features two stags approaching a pool.

In the 6th century and later, many funereal images emphasize the importance of sacrificial death in the imitation of Christ, following the exhortations of the Apostle Paul.9 In this sarcophagus, for example —
Columnar sarcophagus at Sant'Apollinare in Class, near Ravenna, 6th century or later. For details, discussion, and a larger picture see the description page.
two crosses and two date palms flank the familiar image in the center panel. The palms are of the variety still common today in and around Ravenna (pictured at right); they produce clusters of grape-like fruit, and their branches are just the kind that one sees in images of martyrs. They make an eloquent symbol of the link between the immortality represented by their fruit and the salvific mortality signified by their leaves. Indeed, in the Ravenna area the fountain-and-stags image type may substitute a date palm for the fountain and lambs in for the stags (example).


This image type is flexible enough to accommodate local flora and fauna such as Ravenna's date palms or specific bird species example. It can also influence compositional choices in other image types, for example the Traditio Legis. Usually Paul and Peter face forward as they stand erect on either side of Christ, but in this case they face him as they approach bowing, and Peter carries a large cross, reflecting Matthew 16:24, "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me." A similar Traditio Legis is found in a baptistery mosaic in Naples. Another example of the influence of our image type is this dome mosaic, which pictures an architectural element populated with peacocks and kantharoi.

The examples cited on this page are mostly from Greece and the Adriatic basin, but this is partially a function of the travels of the photographers. According to E. B. Smith (Early Christian Iconography, 198-200), Gaul received the fountain/kantharos image type, with all its variants, from Syria. As for dates, echoes of the tradition reach into the 8th century in Classe (the Sarcophagus of Felix) and the 7th in Gaul (e.g. the Sarcophagus of Drausinius in the Louvre).

Prepared in 2018 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University.



Mosaic at the baptistery of the Plaošnik Basilica, Ohrid, Republic of Macedonia. Date uncertain, 5th or possibly 4th century. See the description page.

This is the canonical form of a Greek kantharos: a round bowl decorated by repeated leaf-like strips, a short neck, a relatively small foot, and a pair of handles. About 5 inches tall. See the description page.

Some kantharoi have a high, broad neck and run about 8 inches in height. High-necked kantharoi are common in the Christian images discussed on this page, although none feature figural sculptures like the one shown here. (See the description page.)

Outside Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna: Palm trees and their grape-like fruit.



1 "Exposition on Psalm 42": "Like as the hart desires the water-brooks, so longs my soul after You, O God' Psalm 41:1. Who is it then that says this? It is ourselves, if we be but willing! … It is not however one individual, but it is 'One Body;' but 'Christ's Body is the Church." ... And indeed it is not ill understood as the cry of those, who being as yet Catechumens, are hastening to the grace of the holy Font. On which account too this Psalm is ordinarily chanted on those occasions, that they may long for the Fountain of remission of sins, even 'as the hart for the water-brooks.'" Pseudo-Jerome's Breviarium in Psalmos makes the same point by way of an animal allegory, though it is hard to tell which parts of that work are as early as the 4th or 5th century: "Its [the stag's] custom is that when it finds a serpent it sucks it up by the nose, and after that it feels a burning, so it [wishes to] extinguish its thirst. Thus it is with a man of the Church: he has for a long time indulged in poisonous behavior and at last sees himself filled with the filth of immorality and idolatry, and then desires to come to Christ, in whom is the font of light, so that by the washing of Baptism he may receive the gift of forgiveness. For he knows that unless he is born again by water and the Holy Spirit he will not have eternal life" (Migne, XXVI, 949).

2 Two of the rivers are visible in the present photograph; the mosaicist has labeled them with their names in Genesis 2:11-12, ΓHωN, "Gehon," and ΦI, "Phi[son]." The commentators are in agreement that "Gehon" is the Nile and "Phison" the Ganges: see the Glossa Ordinaria, I, 71-72. A second mosaic on the other side of the Ohrid baptismal font has the identical fountain imagery and the other two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates.

3 Glossa Ordinaria, IV, 1463-66.

4 Jensen, Baptismal Imagery, 140-45.

5 Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art, s.v. "Birds, symbolic." In City of God, XXI, 4, Augustine describes a little experiment he conducted that confirmed that roasted peacock was remarkably resistant to corruption.

6 Quoted in Jensen, ibid., 2. Also see Colossians 2:12, "Buried with him in baptism, in whom also you are risen again by the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him up from the dead."

7 Elderkin, 1-8, 110-111.

8 Genesis 13:18. Hebrews 7:1-28. Glossa Ordinaria, I, 204-205. Catechism of the Catholic Church, ¶¶1330, 1333.

9 "I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercy of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice," Romans 12:1.