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
Often, the fountain is shaped like a kantharos, a wine cup used in banquets in ancient Greece
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
a cross with a hook at the top (example). An early example of this is in the apse at St. John Lateran.
WHY THE STAGS AND FOUNTAIN
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
For "fountains" the Latin of Psalm 41:2 has fontes, which can also mean natural sources. Thus the stags in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia approach a spring, and in the apsidal mosaics in Rome at St. John Lateran and San Clemente they approach the four rivers of Paradise flowing from the cross of Christ. In this 4th-century mosaic in the cathedral at Aquileia, stags approach a figure of Christ himself, pictured as Orpheus.
The stag also figures in images inspired by Psalm 103:18, "the heights are refuge for the deer, the rock for the lepusculus" a young hare or a rabbit The commentators took the "refuge" to refer to Christ and the creatures to members of his Church. See this page for further explanation.
WHY THE PEACOCKS
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
WHY THE KANTHAROS
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 based on scripture. In this catacombs painting it can refer to Christ's promise at the well, that the water he gives "shall become…a fountain of water, springing up into life everlasting." And in this mosaic it holds the wine of Melchizedek's sacrifice (Genesis 14:14-20), which Christians took to be a type of the Eucharist, 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.
THE IMAGE TYPE IN FUNEREAL CONTEXTS
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 — 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).
INFLUENCES AND ADAPTATIONS
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, North Macedonia. Date uncertain, 5th or possibly 4th century. See the description page.