Water is, just like air, an element of the multitude. It is – in contrast to air – clearly visible to the eye. The sea and the ocean are the most essential elements for existence on the earth and occupy the biggest share of its surface. The water is the beginning and end of the human presence on this planet (fig. 265).
Fig. 265 – The water of Titian (c. 1546) as a detail from a woodcut depicting the Biblical story of the ‘Crossing of the Red Sea‘. In: ROSAND & MURARO, (1976/77).
The cycle of water, starting with the evaporation in the oceans, the transportation into the atmosphere and the return as rain on the land and saturating the soil, is one of the great physiological processes, which supports nature and generates growth and decay. The sea has been the symbol of the unlimited. When the sea was described in the classical past as a ‘tear of Kronos‘, it also indicated the immense magnitude of time. Water has been associated, in the quadralectic way of thinking, with the Fourth Quadrant and with the visible invisibility of magnitude in general.
‘Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch’ (Genesis 6:14). It is not exactly clear, which type of wood (or process) was meant. The Greek Septuagint, written from the third to the first century BC, translated the word as ‘xylon tetragonon’, or ‘squared timber’. The Biblical story of the Flood is the history of an apocalypse, in which opposite pairs (of animals) are saved in ‘quadrated wood’ (fig. 266).
Fig. 266 – The Ark of Noach as given in an edition of the Bible by Guillermo Romillium, Lyon (France), 1581. Seven birds fly over the ark, three to the left and four to the right. One bird carries an olive leaf, indicating to Noach that the water withdrew from the earth. In: GRUZINSKI (1992).
The Flood (and water in general) is a symbol of a human crisis, inflicted by natural causes (fig. 267). It was Dante, who expressed these feelings associated with water in his first Canto of the ‘Purgatory’ (SAYERS, 1955):
. For better waters heading with the wind
. My ship of genius now shakes out her sail
. And leaves that ocean of despair behind
Fig. 267 – The terrifying events of the Flood are depicted here in an edition of Ovidius’ ‘Metamorphoses‘ by S. Monath, Nuremberg. The first printed edition of Ovid’s poems was issued by Colard Mansion in Bruges (1484). Many more illustrated versions were printed up to 1600. The Nuremberg engraver Virgil Solis (1514 – 1562) designed 178 woodcuts for a ‘Metamorphosis’ edition, which was published in 1563, a year after his death. In: TOLLMANN (1993).
Just like birds are associated with air, so the fishes have a close connection with water. The first Christians in Rome used the expression ‘Ichtus‘ (fish) as a secret sign of their brotherhood. In the following ages, the symbolism of fish (and water) was not prominent, but it featured again from the Renaissance onwards. The (fish) market became a popular subject in painting, in particular, in the Flemish tradition of Pieter Aertsen (1509 – 1575) and Joachim Beuckelaar (c. 1530 – 1573). Later Dutch painters also used the motif. For instance, Jacob Gerritsz. Cuyp (from 1627) – in the museum of Dordrecht – is an early representative of this style, which was popular in the late seventeenth century.
The ‘water’-theme was often associated with biblical or moral scenes and the shiny display of fish left enough room to imply carnal sin and lust. A good example is an etching by Chrispijn van de Passe the Elder (c. 1565 – 1637), after Maerten de Vos, showing a fisher women grabbing in the pouch of a fisherman (fig. 268). The picture was part of a series on the four elements. Fire (‘ignis‘) is represented as an alchemist with a scantily dressed woman at his side. BRINKMAN (1982) gave several examples of the alchemist as a subject in engravings like those of Crispijn van de Passe the Younger in Schoonhovius’ ‘Emblemata’. The Haarlem School, in the middle of the seventeenth century, favored the visualization of tetradic themes. Water, as a wet and cold element, was associated with a phlegmatic human character and is in its emblematic representation often paired with a frog, a fish or a pig.
Fig. 268 – ‘Aqua’ in an etching of Chrispijn van der Passe after Maerten de Vos. The fisherman and fish sellers are surrounded by their merchandise, with a distinct touch of a sexual undertone. In: MARIJNISSEN (1992).
Water is used in different religious cultures as a means of cleaning and purification. Immersion or sprinkling are seen as a new begin in which the impurity (sin) is washed away. The act of baptizing is strongly influenced by dualistic thinking, in which the symbolic process marks two different periods: one before and one after the purification.
The symbolism of water and the holy act of baptizing are modeled in architecture in the font and/or the chapel (baptisteries). The octagonal (double-four) shape originates from the design of the ‘hot-rooms’ (caldaria) of Roman bathes in the first centuries of the Christian era. This time of consolidation and greatest extension of the Roman Empire had many examples of a distinct ‘tetradic’ undertone in its architectural achievements. The octagonal baptistery in Ravenna (fig. 269), build in the fifth century AD, was a continuation of a Near Eastern tradition and a type-example of many similar eight-sided chapels and churches throughout Europe (VERBEEK, 1967; TIMMERS, 1985; fig. 270).
Fig. 269 – Basilica di S. Vitale – Ravenna (Photo: Marten Kuilman, 1995).
The more worldly fountains were often a statement in terms of division thinking, either deliberately or as a reminiscence of past symbolism. This subject will be elaborated in the discussion of the four Rivers of Paradise.
Fig. 270 – Octagonal baptisteries in Europe and the Near East are architectonic examples of the association between the element water and a (double) tetradic frame of mind. In: HUBERT (1938).
BRINKMAN, A.A.A.M. (1982). De alchemist in de prentkunst. Nieuwe Nederlandse Bijdragen tot de geschiedenis der geneeskunde en der natuurwetenschappen, no. 5. Rodopi B.V., Amsterdam. ISBN 90-6203-612-0
GRUZINSKI, Serge (1992). Painting the Conquest: the Mexican Indians and the European Renaissance (tr. Deke Dusinberre). Unesco/Flammarion, Paris. ISBN 2-08013-521-X
HUBERT, Jean (1938). L’Art pre-romain. Les Editions d’Art et d’Histoire, Paris.
MARIJNISSEN, Peter et al. (Ed.)(1992). De Zichtbaere Werelt: schilderkunst uit de Gouden Eeuw in Hollands oudste stad. Waanders Uitgevers, Zwolle/Dordrechts Museum, Dordrecht. ISBN 90-6630-368-9
ROSAND, David & MURARO, Michelangelo (1976/77). Titian and the Venetian Woodcut. International Exhibitions Foundation.
SAYERS, Dorothy L. (1955)(tr.) The Comedy of Dante Alighieri, The Florentine. Cantica II. Purgatory (Il Purgatorio).
TIMMERS, J.J.M. (1985). Byzantine Influences on Architecture and other art forms in the Low Countries with particular reference to the region of the Meuse. Pp. 104 – 145 in: AALST, van, V.D. & CIGGAAR, K.N. (1985). Byzantium and the Low Countries in the Tenth Century. Aspects of Art and History in the Ottonian Era. A.A. Brediusstichting, Hernen (Holland). ISBN 90-71333-01-9
TOLLMANN, Edith & Alexander (1993). De zondvloed. Van mythe tot historische werkelijkheid. Droemer-Knaur, München/Tirion, Baarn. ISBN 90-5121-409-X
VERBEEK, Albert (1967). Die architektonische Nachfolge der Aachener Pfalzkapelle. Pp. 113 – 156 in: BRAUNFELS, Wolfgang & SCHRAMM, Percy E. (1967). Karl der Grosse. Lebenswerk und Nachleben. Verlag L. Schwann, Düsseldrof, Band IV. Das Nachleben.