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17.11.16, Fliegel and Gertsman, Myth and Mystique

17.11.16, Fliegel and Gertsman, Myth and Mystique

This handsome and well-illustrated catalogue accompanied an exhibition of the same title held at the Cleveland Museum of Art from 9 October 2016 until 26 February 2017 that analyzed in depth the museum's late medieval "table" fountain. In addition to two substantial essays by the museum's Curator of Medieval Art, Stephen N. Fliegel, and Elina Gertsman, Professor of Art History and Art at Case Western Reserve University, the catalogue includes entries for the fifteen exhibited objects written by students in Professor Gertsman's 2015 Spring semester seminar on leisure and piety in late medieval Europe; these are followed by a glossary of terms and an extensive bibliography.

Fliegel's essay, "The Cleveland Table Fountain," offers a rich exploration of this remarkable example of fourteenth-century goldsmith work. Small in scale--only 12.2" high--this three-tiered, castle-like gilt-silver and enameled fountain not only spouted water from its top turret, but functioned as an automaton, with descending streams turning wheels and jingling bells; unfortunately its original catch basin is lost. Although such automata were highly popular in the late Middle Ages, Cleveland's is one of only three surviving examples, and is by far the most complete specimen. The other two are mere fragments reworked at a later time and incorporated into new settings; they were also on display in the exhibition. Fliegel discusses the origins of automata in the ancient world and traces the later manufacture of such fountains, for example in Byzantine and Muslim contexts. His evidence remains largely written rather than material or visual, mostly from descriptions in literature and texts on hydraulics, as well as listings in inventories, from which he quotes extensively. Much of the essay focuses on the unresolved question regarding the Cleveland fountain's function. Some scholars had believed such items appeared on banqueting tables in aristocratic dwellings, possibly used for hand-washing or perfuming the hall with rose water; thus these objects are generally referred to as "table fountains." However, after analyzing the documentary texts (which consistently refer to "fountains" not table fountains), examining the mechanism, and exploring dining habits and hand-washing rituals in late medieval Europe, Fliegel convincingly concludes the object would more likely have been located apart from the dining area, in adjacent spaces or even in bed chambers, and placed on a small side table or stand; probably it spouted rose water. This fountain is far too fragile for hand-washing duties and, as he notes, dining tables were portable and set up temporarily; such fountains would need a semi-permanent attachment to a hydraulic system using either a hand pump or gravity-feed system in order to function. Thus, Fliegel believes its purpose was entertainment: to provide sensory delight, including visual, auditory, and odorous, to the aristocratic inhabitants and visitors. Fliegel also analyzes the stylistic features of this elaborately decorative structure and its enamels depicting grotesques and drolleries, concluding it was made in Paris, ca. 1320-40. He notes the similarity of its eight-pointed star motif to that used for the Order of the Star, a chivalric order established in 1351 by John the Good. If such a connection exits, as originally proposed by George Szabo in an unpublished 1977 lecture, Fliegel suggests the stars, located on silver-gilt shields, would have been added to the fountain at that later date (and several are modern additions). Unfortunately, there is no known provenance for the object prior to its acquisition by the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1924, and even its origin at the time of that sale is uncertain.

Gertsman's essay, "Sensual Delights: Fountains, Fiction, and Feeling," largely moves away from questions of material culture and even from this specific fountain, exploring instead symbolic uses for fountains and flowing water in medieval literary and visual contexts, both secular and religious. Her expertise ranges widely, as she considers the role played by fountains and water in texts such as the Roman de la Rose, the Roman d'Alexandre, and various versions of the Tristan and Isolde narrative; she traces the topos of the Fountain of Youth as written about in texts such as the Roman de Fauvel and represented in small ivories and monumental frescoes, such as in the Castello di Manta; she addresses an unusual fresco depicting women fighting beneath a tree blooming with phalluses, located over the civic fountain in Massa Marittima; and explores Garden of Eden imagery in paintings and manuscripts. Her wide-ranging essay considers flowing water in paradisiacal gardens and monastic settings and gardens of love, as well as fountains of love. She concludes that binding these diverse sources together is the power--sometimes dangerous, sometimes salvific--of fountains' sensual appeal: like the Cleveland fountain, they generate delightful sounds, fresh aromas, and visual and haptic pleasures. Yet, as she notes, fountains are paradoxical, for they are contradictory: although sensual and appealing, their meaning slips between representing purity and spreading pollution, offering reflection and providing deception; just as the ripples on water surfaces make reflections unstable, so the semiotics of water remain inconsistent. Well-illustrated, and with generous footnotes, Gertsman's essay offers rich information regarding a range of meanings for fountains and water in late medieval literature and art.

The catalogue entries, written by Gertsman's students, similarly present rich information and bibliographical references regarding the fifteen late medieval objects from the exhibition. Ranging from examples of goldsmith work and enamels to illuminated manuscripts, paintings, and objects such as a saltcellar, a ewer, lavers, an aquamanile, and a lavabo, the entries are uniformly useful, including careful descriptions, discussions of practical functions and context, and explanations of technique and manufacture, as well as of provenance, style, and dating. While small, the Cleveland exhibition included several particularly noteworthy objects: the only two other surviving fragments of Gothic fountains (Antwerp: Museum Mayer van den Bergh, and the Monasterio de San Paio, Santiago de Compostela); the Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux, the tiny illuminated manuscript by Jean Pucelle (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art); the remarkable Grandes Chroniques de France (Paris: Bibliothèque nationale de France); and, thanks to renovations at the Antwerp museum, Jan van Eyck's magnificent Madonna at the Fountain (Antwerp: Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten). A helpful glossary and extensive bibliography follows.

In the past two decades, art historians have increasingly considered objects of material culture as part of not just past societies' visual worlds but more broadly their sensory landscapes--aromatic, haptic, and aural--and worked to contextualize them within those settings. This catalogue offers an excellent example of how deeply a single object can resonate within its original cultural realm.