The Fountain of Youth by Lucas Cranach the Elder

The Fountain of Youth by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1546)

Throughout time, mankind has always looked for ways to extend the longevity of life.  In modern times we have organ transplants, anti-aging creams and plastic surgery to either extend our life or if we accept the futility of that premise, then at least try and make oneself look younger.  We can now bathe in spas whose magical water quality are supposed to combat this disease or that disease and many who have bathed in these waters leave feeling cleansed and believe implicitly that the waters do heal them of their ailments and have rejuvenated them.  In past times there was always talk about the mythical Fountain of Youth in which the waters could reverse the ageing process.  Alexander the Great, who conquered most of the known world at the time, was thought to have been searching for a river that healed the ravages of age. Move forward to the 12th century and we hear of a puzzling letter sent to the Byzantine emperor Manuel I which started to circulate around Europe. It told of a magical kingdom in the East that was in danger of being overrun by infidels and barbarians. This letter was supposedly written by a king known as Prester John and talked about his kingdom which had rivers filled with gold and was the home of the Fountain of Youth.  Two centuries later, in 1513, it was recorded that the explorer, Ponce de León, was searching for the Fountain of Youth when he traveled to what is now Florida.   And so it goes on, this fascination with the mystical Fountain of Youth.

Artists have often recorded pictorially their take on this magical fountain and today I am going to take a look at one which was completed just over thirty years after Ponce de León’s voyage of discovery.  The painting, Der Jungbrunnen (The Fountain of Youth) is by the German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder which he completed in 1546.  It is about the human desire for immortality and eternal youth.  The old women in the painting crave to cast aside their worn outer shell, which is pale and wrinkled, and exchange their haggard looks by replacing their outer-self with a more acceptable younger version.

The examination

I like the mini-scene in the centre ground to the left of the pool where we see a man bent forward closely examining a naked woman.  What is that all about?  Is he an official or maybe a doctor who is examining how haggard the woman is to see if she fits the criteria for rejuvenation?  If this is the case, then for once to gain one’s admission to the pool old age and infirmity is requisite bargaining tool!

The Fountain

In many ways this simplistic depiction of the Fountain of Youth is quite amusing.  At the centre of the painting we observe a large square-shaped grey and white pool, at one end of which is the fountain.   The fountain gushes out water it has drawn from the spring below.  On the fountain there are statues of Venus and Cupid which, in some ways, is confirmation that this is more of a Fountain of Love and that maybe it is the power of love which is the rejuvenating factor.   The pool is populated by naked women.  Steps around the four sides of the pool lead down to the healing waters.  To the left of the painting we see elderly women, who have made the long and tiring journey, arriving in carts, on litters, in wheelbarrows or in one case piggy-backed on a man who can just about cope with her weight.  All want to bathe in the rejuvenating water.

Wheeled to the magical waters

The old women then alight from their transport, take off their clothes, examined and are helped into the square-shaped pool, the water of which is being topped up from the Fountain of Youth.   Once partly immersed in the magical waters the naked women begin to splash themselves with the water and frolic about, the cares of the world seemingly lifted from their shoulders.  Now that the women have regained their youthful looks they look at one another amazed by the change that has taken place.  They caress themselves or caress one another, hardly believing what they are seeing and feeling.  They comb their long flowing golden hair.  Their mood is one of triumph.  The power of the waters has worked.

In and out of the robing tent

If we now look to the right hand side of the pool we see that after having been immersed and had been revived by the recuperative powers of the waters, they step out of the pool, rejuvenated and once again young.  From the pool side, these gregarious young virgins are then directed towards a large tent in order to dress and after a short while they emerge as beautiful young ladies wearing the most exquisite clothes.  For them, the world has changed and they go off to dance or dine or find themselves a handsome young man whom they can take off to the seclusion of the bushes to……..

Although this undoubtedly is a humorous painting, I wonder whether Cranach intended to also moralize with his depiction.  On the left Cranach depicts the old women being brought to the waters by ordinary working-class types of people but note how, once rejuvenated and sumptuously dressed, the young women go off with the upper class nobility.  What happened to the poor men who almost carried their women to the pool?  Have they now been abandoned?  Another question the painting raises is why are there no men in the pool being rejuvenated?  Should we believe that in the 16th century it was only the women who sought rejuvenation?  Has nothing changed in the last five centuries?   Is the female current desire for rejuvenation by creams, potions and the surgeon’s knife any different to Cranach’s women immersing themselves in the Fountain of Youth?

One of the things I like about this painting is the number of mini-scenes taking place within the work.  Every time I look at the work, I notice something I had not seen before.  I saw this work of art when I visited the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin some time back, the same museum which houses the Netherländish Proverbs by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, another marvelous painting which is awash with mini scenes.