42. The Garden of Eden




Fig. 276 – Paradise. A painting by Lukas Cranach the Elder (1530).

The Paradise or Garden of Eden was part of the Christian creation narrative. The fictional space was often divided by four rivers:

 ———————————   Euphrates

———————————    Geon (probably the Nile)

———————————    Physon (probably the Ganges)

———————————    Tigris

The middle two rivers are, in particular, subject to various interpretations. The rivers, in turn, could be symbolized as jars with water pouring out (fig. 277/278):


Fig. 277 – The rivers of paradise in Herrad von Landsberg’s ‘Hortus Deliciarum‘, Hohenburg (Elzas), c. 1185. In: SELBMANN  (1984/1993).


Fig. 278 – The four rivers of Paradise in the Musterbuch von Schmid. In: SEIBERT (1980).

The actual position of the Paradise can vary between Mesopotamia and the Land of Ophir (Havilla), which seems to be situated in Ethiopia. The gold of the Queen of Sheba, who visited King Salomon, was in this latter version originated in Paradise. The discussion on the actual geographical position of the Paradise found a reference in the work of Proclus (‘In Platonis Timaeum commentaria‘), Pomponius Mela (‘De Chronographia libri tres‘) and Cosmas Indicopleustes (‘Topographia Christiana’, SCHLEISSHEIMER, 1959; WOLSKA, 1962). The Syriac-Nestorian school might have contributed as well (UHLEMANN, 1832; VON DEN BRINCKEN, 1970).

The association of streaming water (in rivers) as a symbolism for time was well-known (DE SANTILLANA & VON DECHEND, 1969; Ch. XIII, pp. 192 – 203: Of Time and the Rivers). Acheron, Styx en Phlegethon flow from a howling crevasse in the earth and carry away the people in the underworld. The rivers flow into the Lake of Cocytus, the ultimate depth. The early fourteenth-century representation by Dante, in his ‘Inferno‘, advocated the triple division. It seemed like a derivative of a balanced tetradic representation, as put forward by Plato in his ‘Phaedo’ and by Macrobius, in his ‘Commentary on the Dream of Scipio’. They tell the story of four rivers: the Phlegethon (as the fiery rage and passion), Acheron (as regret and sorrow), Cocytus (as the mournful and tears) and Styx (as the depth of mutual hate) (fig. 279).


Fig. 279 – The four rivers of the Underworld are seen here as a model of time. This (quadralectic) interpretation used information provided by Plato (in the ‘Phaedo‘) and Macrobius (in the ‘Commentary on the Dream of Scipio’). They regarded the rivers Phlegethon, Cocytus, Acheron and the Styx as units of a cycle of visibility.

The (Pyri)Phlegethon is the River of Fire, which, like a lava flow, symbolizes the first period. The Acheron flowed, according to Plato’s ‘Phaedo‘, through the desert and is a land-river, discharging itself in a lake. The river Cocytus has an intermediate position, between the (Pyri)Phlegethon and the Acheron. The Styx is (in the ‘Phaedo‘) the fourth river, which disappeared in the depth as a waterfall. The Abyss (or Apsu) indicates the infinity at the end of a cyclic of existence.

The rivers and the flowing water (the ‘pantha rei’ of Heraclites) stand for the dynamic forces in time and place governed by a four-division. It is a theme, which can be traced back to the Babylonian creation epic, the Enuma Elish. The story was written around the twelfth century BC on seven clay tablets (KING, 1902; BRATCHER, 2010). The cuneiform tablets were discovered in the middle of the nineteenth century in the palace of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh.

It was Marduk, who first ‘crossed the heavens and surveyed the regions. He squared the Apsu’s quarter, the abode of Nudimud (= Ea). As the lord measured the dimensions of Apsu and then erected his palace as the ‘likeness’ of Apsu’ (DE SANTILLANA & VON DECHEND (1969; p. 270).

The constellation of Pegasus was characterized by a square, called ‘1-Iku‘ consisting of the stars alpha beta gamma Pegasi and alpha Andromedae. They are situated between the two Fishes (Pisces) (fig. 280). The German translator of the ‘Gilgamesh Epos’, Arthur UNGNAD (1911) equated, in ‘Das wiedergefundene Paradies‘ (1923), this square with the Paradise. A connection was made with the Biblical Ark, which shape was supposed to be an exact cube.


Fig. 280 – The Pegasus-square, called ‘1-Iku‘, surrounded by four rivers. This sketch by Arthur Ungnad (below) is inverted with respect to the usual order of star maps (above). The square, enclosed by Pisces, was understood to be the ‘Paradise’, the primordial field. In: SANTILLANA, de & DECHEND, von  (1969).

The number seven is of importance in the Christian creation-myth: the world was created in seven days, thereby putting the seven-division to the front of early numerology. However, this number does not correspond – in the present conception of a division as the key to a cognitive system – with a specific form of partition thinking. This picture fits into a Judeo-Christian opinion that Creation is a single act in space and time, giving rise to the world of opposites.

Paradise is the place where the visible visibility springs to life and where human unity (Adam, the good) is divided into it’s opposite (Eva, the bad). This historical element of controversy and opposition, which is carried on in many disguises right through the Bible, is much stronger than the peaceful flowing of the four rivers of Paradise.

For the course of history, riddled with fights, wars and controversies, it must be regretted, that the emphasis of the Christian believers was more inclined to the dual aspect of creation rather than to its tetradic appearance.

The same regret holds for the other mainstream of belief, the alchemy, which had been flowing concurrently with the Christian faith from the early foundation of Europe as a cultural entity. The corpus of alchemical knowledge lost itself in the end – by that time it was called chemistry – in a similar type of dual thinking.

pisaAn example of a situation when things were altogether different, was provided by an illustration of the creation of the earth in Constantinus’ ‘Bouc der heimelicheden van mire vrouwen alkemen’, dated from the end of the fourteenth century (VAN LENNEP, 1984).  A figure of the creation of the world in four stages was also given by Barbara OBRIST (1982, 1990) in  a  discussion of Constantine of Pisa’s ‘Book of the Secrets of Alchemy’  (Nat.  Bibl. Vienna Ms.  2372, fol. 45r). The illustration from the ‘Liber secretorum alchimie’  is reproduced here as fig. 281.





Fig. 281 – The creation in Constantine of Pisa’s ‘Book of the Secrets of Alchemy’ depicts a world in four stages.  (Nat.  Bibl. Vienna Ms  2372, fol. 45r).


The ‘Bouc der heimelicheden van mire vrouwen alkemen’ was a Flemish translation of a Latin tractate, which has been dated in 1224, but must be situated, according to VAN LENNEP (1984, p. 47) in the second half of the fourteenth century. The picture indicated four circles, pointing to four distinct stages in the process of creation. It described, in alchemical terms, the Great Work (Magnum Opus) by the flow of holy or mercurial waters. The course of the water is significant in the various stages: from the primary four- to a two-division (Adam and Eve), a four division (the rivers of paradise) and a triangle.

1. The upper circle gave the actual, ‘heavenly’ creation: four rivers flow from a central source (fons maris) into four oceans. At the top (East) the Caspian Sea, to the right the Red Sea (South), below the Western Sea (West) and to the left the Mediterranean (North). This arrangement suggested a Hellenistic/ Alexandrian background, because the cultural melting pot in Northern Egypt fit in the given geographic orientation. VAN LENNEP’s (1984, p. 50) interpretation that the Red Sea (Mare Rubrum) is associated with the east (where the sun rises and the gold appears), is not in agreement with the direction in the picture, where the Red Sea is pointing to the south.

2. From the Western Seas flow two rivers towards the second circle, where Adam and Eve are in Paradise, eating an apple. Constantinus, using Aristotle as his source, dwelled exhaustive at the source of the waters of the seas (Tartarus) and the nature of the salt water. Adam was androgyn before Eva was formed, but this state of unity ended in a duality. The eating of the apple marked the Fall of Man.

3. The third circle shows the earth, with a moon and a mountain. A pelican is feeding her young. This representation was a well-known symbolism of the care of Christ for mankind. Four rivers flow from the mountain towards the next circle. These are the ‘earthly’ sources of creation, the rivers of Paradise.

4. The fourth circle figures a triangle with the indications of Asia (the east pointing north again), Africa and Europe, with Jerusalem in the center. Birds, animals and plants surround the symbolic representation of the earth.

The theme of the quadripartite fountain, and the start of Creation in general, was in the alchemical tradition related to Mercurius (JUNG, 1953). Mercurius pointed the way, as a communicator, swift in mind and body, with wings on his shoes and a golden staff. Plato described him in the ‘Phaedrus‘ as the celestial scribe and guardian of the files and records ‘and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters.’ Fig. 282 gives the source of life as a source of Mercurius.


Fig. 282 – The source of life as the ‘source of Mercurius’. This illustration is from the ‘Rosarium philosophorum’ (1550), in a compilation entitled ‘Artis auriferae, quam Chemiam vocant, Volumina duo‘ (printed by Conrad Waldkrich in Basel, 1593 and 1610). The picture is full of alchemical symbolism related to Mercurius ‘descending into the fountain’, or the act of creation. In:  JUNG  (1953/1968; 1984).

Mercurius (or Hermes) was originally related to a rock-fetish (‘Mineralis‘), which became the ‘lapis‘ (Philosopher’s stone) of the alchemists: ‘It is called a stone not because it is like a stone, but only because by virtue of its fixed nature and that is resists the action of fire as successfully as any stone’. The seven stages to perfect the ‘Stone’ are described as follows (in a work entitled ‘The Open Entrance’ by Eirenaeus Philalethes, 1667): ‘The beginning of the heating of gold with mercury is likened to the king stripping off his golden garments and descending into the fountain. This is the regimen of Mercury. As the heating is continued, all becomes black; this is the regimen of Saturn. Then is noticed a plan in many colors; this is the regimen of Jupiter. About the end of the fourth month you will see the sign of the waxing Moon, and all becomes white; this is the regimen of the Moon. The white color gives place to purple and green, and you are now in the regimen of Venus. After that, appear all the colors of the rainbow or of a peacock’s tail; this is the regimen of Mars. Finally, the color becomes orange and golden; this is the regimen of the Sun’ (THOMPSON, 1932).

The spirited theme of rivers and gardens was further elaborated on Persian carpets. The shape of a carpet induces the design of rectangular forms, and there is often a (religious) meaning in the patterns, since many of the older carpets wee made as means of contemplation. The rivers of Paradise divide the carpet into four quarters (fig.  283).


Fig. 283 – Two Persian carpets with a garden and four rivers of paradise. Left: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Collection James F. Ballard. In: ARDALAN & BAKHTIAR (1973). Right: Victoria and Albert Museum, London; around 1700. In: THACKER (1979).

The Tree of Life, as a symbol of the Paradise, was also used in carpets. The rugs hung on the walls of rooms facing the garden to act as an extra window. The cities of Isfahan, Qom and Tabriz were famous for their tree-patterns (SAKHAI, 1991/1994).

The tree has a great significance in the Arabic literature: ‘This prime matter … is taken from a single tree which grows in the lands of the West… and this tree grows on the surface of the ocean as plants grow on the surface of the earth. This is the tree of which whosoever eats, man and jinn obey him; it is also the tree of which Adam (peace be upon him!) was forbidden to eat, and when he ate, he was transformed from his angelic form to human form. And this tree may be changed into every animal shape.’ (from the ‘Kitab al-‘ilm al-muktasab’ quoted by SAKHAI, 1991/1994; p. 163).

The fourfold motif (of the rivers) was conventionalized in the emblems (‘gul‘), which were used by the carpet makers of the Turkmen tribes in Central Asia (CURATOLA, 1981/1983). They all have a strong quadripartite scheme in common, often with a contrast between the quadrants (fig. 284).


Fig. 284 – Some examples of Central-Asian emblems (‘gul‘) on carpets of the following Turkmen tribes: 1. Saruk; 2. Salor; 3. Tekke; 4. Yomud; 5. Kepse, Yomud; 6. Dyrnak van Yomud; 7. Ersar; 8. Tauk Nuska of Arabatch; 9. Bokhara; 10. Afghanistan. In: CURATOLA  (1981/1983).

The relation between the geographical area where a particular craft is performed (in time) and the mental frame of the culture, in which this art is born, deserves further study. The devotion to the manual labor thousands of knots, resulting in a carpet – are indicative of a specific cultural depth in which division-thinking plays an important part. The population of a wide area – roughly from Turkey to Afghanistan, with Persia as its cardinal point – is historically devoted to the manufacturing of carpets.

The restriction of a rectangle (carpet) to be filled with a multitude of small units (knots) in a painstaking process, is a symbol of existence itself. In the simplicity of a single act – to create visibility by a material tool – emerged a pattern, which  can develop into an exciting unity called beauty. Crossing the boundary of a limitation (in time and place) into an eternal experience of (personal) admiration is what life is all about.

The classical Romans discovered this process in the making of mosaics, covering the floors of their villas and bathhouses. Later, the Flemish and French goblin makers followed a similar line, representing the same endeavor. This principle (of repetitive labor creating beauty) was deeply changed when the labor was taken away from the human hands and transferred to a machine in the late eighteenth century. The value of time had to be reformulated. An ever faster (mechanical) production line is at odds with the conventional idea of a slow growing (human) appreciation.

The four rivers of Paradise have a long cartographic history. They were positioned in the East, which was often the upper part of the map (fig. 285). The relation of the origin of division as it was symbolized in the Paradise, and the divine made this orientation a logical one. It is likely that the compass, which became only prominent during and mainly after the great discovery of seafarers at the turn of the fifteenth and sixteenth century (around 1500 AD)  were made, had  a decisive influence on the shift  of the orientation of maps pointing from the east  to the north, which is the general state today.


Fig. 285 – Medieval representations of the four rivers of Paradise. Left: Map in a manuscript of Isidorus of Seville, San Millan, 946 AD. In: BRINCKEN,  von den,  (1991). ‘The Etymologies of 946, copied by Jimeno in the Monastery of San Millán de la Cogolla, give us an image of the world which, although clumsily drawn, provides us with more information. It could be said that it contains not just Isidorian cartography, but the basic knowledge of a cultivated X-century man’ (BANGO TORVISO, 2006). Right: From the ‘Liber historiarum’ of Guido of Pisa, twelfth century. Old maps often display the east at the top of the map to indicate an alliance with God. In:  ARENTZEN (1984).

The paradise is, in a mythical sense, the representation of the ideal world. The quadri-partite division, as the ‘earthly’ division-component, is of prime importance and this was particular well understood in the Scholastic period around the year 1200 of the European cultural history.

Three examples are given here, which are closely related in time and place and intent (fig. 286 – 288). The first illustration (fig. 286) is from the monastery of Ratisbon (Germany) and dated from between AD 1170 and AD 1185 (KATZENELLENBOGEN, 1939; ESMEIJER, 1978). The Lamb (Agnus Dei) takes a central place, surrounded by the personification of the Paradise: Paradysus. From here the four rivers of Paradise flow to the Northwest (Tigris), Northeast (Euphrates), Southeast (Geon) and Southwest (Physon). Their personifications hold the church fathers in a medallion: Tigris clasps Augustine, Euphrates Gregory, Geon Jeronimus and Physon Ambrosius.

A split in two in the directions north, east, south and west (at that time of drawing understood as east, south, west and north) are indicated with the letters A.D.A.M. They accommodate medallions with paired evangelists (eagle, oxen, angle and lion) and virtues (temperantia, fortitudo, prudentia, justicia). Christ, sitting within a circle, governs the earthly paradise and shows his pierced hands. The cross (left) and its attributes (right) indicate his suffering for mankind. The holy division (cross – Christ – attributes) is a triple one, while the earthly ‘Paradysus‘ rules over a four-fold division. This type of division distribution (3 + 4) was originally given by John Scotus Eriugena.


Fig. 286 – The mystical Paradise is illustrated here in a quadripartite symbolism of the rivers of Paradise, Church fathers, virtues and the Evangelists dating from the end of the twelfth century. From a manuscript in the monastery of Ratisbon, c. 1170 – 1185. In: KATZENELLENBOGEN (1939). Fig. 57b in: ESMEIJER, (1978). Fig. 21 in: CAVINESS  (1983).

The second example – from a breviary in the monastery of Zwiefalten also dating from the twelfth century (fig. 287) – uses the same elements, again with the Holy Lamb in the centre. This time the paradise does not have a personification. The ‘IIII flumina paradisi’ flow in four directions: Physon to the north, Tigris to the east, Euphrates to the south and Geon to the west. Their personifications carry a jug, which was the usual way in this period to depict the rivers of Paradise.


Fig. 287 – Quadripartite symbolism as a representation of the earthly paradise. From a twelfth century breviary in the monastery of Zwiefalten, Germany. The rivers of paradise are personified as water carriers, pouring their water out of a jug, and placed in square medallion indicating their ‘earthly’ connection. The cardinal virtues are placed in the corners in round medallions, pointing to a ‘holy’ combination. The four Evangelists are given as scribes and accompanied by their symbols: man (angel), eagle, lion, bull. Carl JUNG (1973) compared this diagram with a mandala, the Boeddhistic cosmic view used as an aid for meditation. Brevary No.  128,  fol.  10, Zwiefalten Abbey, Germany. Foto Paul  Scheifdegger, Zürich. In: CAMPBELL (1974).

The ‘quattuor virtutes cardinales’ are drawn in the round medallions at the corners: Prudentia (left) and Justitia (right) at the top, Fortitudo (left) and Temperantia (right) at the bottom. They hold their traditional attributes: Prudentia a book, Justitia a scale, Fortitudo some armory and Temperantia a cup.

The third example is a page from a Psalter from Thüringen (Germany) showing the rivers as personifications in circles (fig. 288).


Fig. 288 – The paradise as given on a page from a Psalter, written in Thüringen, Germany. Thirteenth century, before 1239. In: MINER (1949).

In this case, there is no description or names give to the rivers: apparently, the symbolism of the man pouring their jugs was sufficient to understand its meaning as rivers of Paradise. The circles are part of a ‘piscus viseralis’, two circle arches, which provided the (double) holy space of God or Christ. This geometrical figure was also called the ‘mandorla‘ and was in widespread use from the ninth century onwards up to the fifteenth century. Abraham is the center figure in the Thüringen Psalter, seated on a throne, with Lazarus (?) on his knee. Both have a circle (nimbus) around their head to emphasis their holiness.

The theme of the four rivers of paradise was sometimes depicted as a cross (fig. 289), figuring as the four oceans. ‘Mare Rubius‘ (Red Sea) is marked, flowing to the east. North of it lies Africa. Rome is drawn prominently in a castle-like fashion with three towers, just right of the center. The southeastern quadrant represents Europe, mainly with Spanish city names. Little is shown of the geography of other European countries (could this map be a forgery?).


Fig. 289 – A world map with the four rivers of Paradise. Roman period. Beatus-map, thirteenth century, Bibliotheque Nationale Ms. nouv. acq.  Lat.  1366, in:  MILLER (1895-1898).  Also in: CHAMPEAUX,  de,   & STERCKX (1966).   And, with additions, in: MÜLLER (1961).

Jerusalem lies opposite Rome, left off the center of the map, without further elaboration (which is, again, unusually for a map supposedly drawn in the ‘Roman period’). The southwestern quadrant is the present Middle East (Arabia) and southeastern Europe. Asia is marked in the northwestern quadrant. Here the Paradise is encountered again at the northern rim. The Euphrates flows to the left, the Fison and Geon to the right and finally the Tigris flows to the south and turns outside the square of the Garden of Eden to the right.

The four Evangelists are depicted as scribes and accompanied by their winged symbols (as given in the Revelations): St Matthew with an angel or man (homo), St John with an eagle (aquila), St Mark with a lion (leo) and St Luke with a bull (vitulus).

Sometimes the imagery of the rivers was taken into the fantastic. The famous geographer Gerard Mercator (1512 – 1594) published a map on which the rivers are situated at the North pole (fig. 290). The growing need to provide an ever large public with the increased – but still not complete – geographical knowledge mended that map makers and illustrators searched for old concepts, to cover up their lack of detailed knowledge of a particular part of the world.


Fig. 290 – The rivers of Paradise around the North pole (Polus Arcticus) as given in a colored engraving from the geographer Gerard Kremer (Gerard Mercator, 1512 – 1594) in 1595. He was called the ‘Ptolemaeus of his time’. Maritiem Museum ‘Prins Hendrik“, Rotterdam. Fantasy made use of the old concept of the four rivers of paradise to cover up a lack of actual knowledge of this particular area of the world. In:  CHAMPEAUX, de & STERCKX (1966). Slightly different in:  BRICKER (1969).  And: CALABRESE,   (1991).

The ‘discovery of the world’ reached the common people in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. The information was often incomplete and colored by a personal touch, which did not fit the actual facts. Daniël Defoe (1660 – 1731; fig. 291), for instance, wrote in 1729 a book on Madagascar (‘or Robert Drury’s Journal, during fifteen-year  captivity on that Island’), without ever visiting the island. His earlier ‘Robinson Crusoë’ (1719) is still a synonym for a human being lost in an exotic world and trying to survive. ‘Voyage literature was popular; it had an incalculable influence’, said Percy ADAMS (1962/1980, p. 223) in his book about ‘Travelers and Travel Liars’. ‘In an age of enlightenment readers were dependent on it, not only for facts about a world that was growing both larger and very interesting, but for entertainment – the adventurous, the exotic, the marvelous.’


Fig. 291 – Daniel Defoe, the creator of the story of ‘Robinson Crusoë’ (1719), was a chameleon-like figure who ‘made fiction seem like truth and truth like fiction’. The engraver expressed the duplicity of his character by choosing opposite directions of head and body. In: ADAMS  (1962/1980).

Within the context of the exotic, the paradise was used as a means of propaganda. Samuel Jenner wrote in 1737 a book – in German – titled ‘Neugefundenes Eden’ (New-found Eden), with the intention to draw Swiss emigrants to Virginia. He succeeded in his appeal, because two-hundred-and-fifty colonists departed from Switzerland to America, after he had received – as an agent of William BYRD (1733/2004), writer of the book ‘The History of the Dividing Line‘ – an amount of six thousand pounds. The story had an unfortunate end when the boat with the Swiss colonists was wrecked in a storm off the coast of Virginia in 1738, and most of the intended settlers were drowned.

The image of (the beginning of) time is also expressed in fountains. This classical theme was revived by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meung in the thirteenth century French poem ‘Roman de la Rose’. It got a new impulse in the Renaissance (WEBER, 1985), when the reminiscences of a division-orientated lay-out of space came back in an oppositional cognitive framework.

The fountain is, as an object of observation, an architectonic feature, which can enhance the metaphor of water and its meaning as a source of generation (fig. 292).


Fig. 292 – A plan of different fountains from du Cerceau’s book ‘Le second livre d’architecture’, printed in 1561. The fountain was particularly suitable to propagate the evocation of the quaternion. The Italian and French Renaissance architects favored this feature in relation with garden layout and architecture in general. The ‘Fountain of the Four Venen’ in the Villa Lante at Bagnaia (Italy) was a highlight of this development. In:  MILLER (1977).

The source of life, in relation to creation and paradise, ‘is a frequent motif in early Christian and Carolingian art’ (MILLER, 1977). A good example was the ‘Fountain of Life’ found in the Soissons Gospels (folio 6v.) dated from the beginning of the ninth century.

The ‘aqua vitae‘ was equivalent with regeneration, baptism, purification, renewal and rebirth and provided a reference-point. For this reason, the water of life serves in a many myths and folk tales. WÜNSCHE (1905, p. 71) pointed to Mesopotamia as the area of origin of the ‘aqua vitae‘ motif: ‘Wie der Lebensbaum so hat auch das Lebenswasser sein Prototyp im babylonisch-assyrischen Mythenkreise’.

The ‘Fountain of All Virtues’ was a statement in its own right in the edition of Petrarca’s ‘Trionfi‘ (c. 1520): the paradise is here and now and accessible. The fountain of youth feeds rivers of milk, wine, honey and oil. On this base, the architects of the Renaissance could create a reality in which ‘decorative allegorical aesthetic is superimposed upon an erudite and classical tradition’ (MILLER, 1977; p. 99). Two examples of these fountains are given in fig. 293.


Fig. 293 – Left: ‘La Fontaine des Toutes Virtues‘ from Petrarca’s ‘Trionfi‘.   (Les Triumphes des Vertus). Bibliotheque Nationale, Parijs. MS. Fran. 144, early sixteenth century. In: MILLER (1977). The four cardinal virtues are depicted as (hexagonal) fountains surrounding a central seated figure. Right: The fountain of love. Around 1470. The hexagonal shape fitted, just like the tetra/octagonal, in a two-fold symmetry pattern, which is related to lower division thinking. Hind, Early Italian Engravings, IV, pl. 395.  In: MILLER  (1977).

Bernini’s ‘Fountain of the Four Rivers’ in the Piazza Navona in Rome is yet another tribute to the water-of-life symbolism (fig. 294). ‘The four rivers of paradise that divided the world are brought back to their single mysterious source: the rock of Creation’ (SCHAMA, 1995; p. 299). However, in Bernini’s case the four rivers were the Danube, Nile, Ganges and Rio de la Plata. An Egyptian obelisk crowned the fountain and contributed to ‘the place where all the currents of river mythology, Eastern and Western, Egyptian and Roman, pagan and Christian, flowed toward one great sacred stream’ (p. 293).


Fig. 294 – Bernini’s ‘Fountain of the Four Rivers’ in the Piazza Navona in Rome. The Piazza is situated in an old Roman circus, which can still be recognized, in its oval shape. Later it became a marketplace. Pope Innocent X (1574 – 1655) assigned the building of a fountain to Bernini in the fall of 1647. The construction of the fountain, with the glorification of an Egyptian obelisk, took place during the Holy Year 1650. In: SCHAMA,  (1995).

Pope Alexander VII (1599 – 1667) announced, soon after the completion of the Piazza Navona, a redevelopment of the Square of Saint Peter (in 1656). Bernini had a trapezoid design ready in three weeks (KITAO, 1974). The plan was in the next year reshaped in a square, with two semicircles. The latter became ‘oval porticos’, with Doric colonnades. Bernini also sketched, in the development stage, the Piazza Obliqua with a tetrastyle frame at the colonnade-corridor junction.

The colonnades formed – with the square – an ‘ovato tondo‘ (an oval drawn from two circles), referring to the image of the Roman amphitheater. ‘Bernini’s concern with the circle’ said KITAO (1974; p. 29), ‘did not issue from the image of the circle as a geometrical abstraction, but rather from that of the concrete architectural form of the amphitheatre’. History had become material rather than spiritual.

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