Today, at the suggestion of a reader, we will take a general look at the widespread and popular Marian icon type called in Greek Η Ζωοδόχος Πηγή — He Zoodokhos Pege, pronounced zo-o-DOKH-os pee-YEE (“g” before ee pronounced as “y”) in modern Greek. It means literally The (He) Life-(Zoo) -holding (dokhos) Spring (Pege). In Church Slavic it is ЖИВОНОСНЫ ИСТОЧНИК — Zhivonosnui Istochnik, literally Life- (Zhivo-) bearing (nosnui) Spring (Istochnik).
There are many variant English forms of the title such as “Life-giving Fountain,” “Life-giving Wellspring,” “Life-giving Font” and so forth, but I will just call it “The Life-giving Spring.”
Here is a rather folkish Greek icon of the type:
Here is a simple Russian rendering:
This particular Russian example has a slight variation on the title, writing it Zhivonosnuiya Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui — The “Life-bearing Most Holy Mother of God.” The type did not become popular in Russia until the 18th century.
Whether Greek or Russian, the essential of the type is an image of Mary holding the child Christ, seated in the chalice-shaped basin of a fountain, from which waters flow into a tank below. There are usually two angels, one at either side above, as well as people at the fountain, from few to many. In this Russian example, the angels hold disks with the IC XC abbreviation for “Jesus Christ.”
The traditional origin story of this type tells us that in 5th-century Constantinople, there was a grove of trees near the so-called “Golden Gate.” The grove was dedicated to Mary, and inside the grove was a spring noted for its healing powers, but by that time it had been neglected and had become silted up and overgrown.
It happened that near the site, a soldier named Leo Marcellus encountered a blind man who had lost his way. Marcellus took the weary man into the grove to cool off and rest a bit while he went to look for water to revive him. Suddenly he heard a voice that said, “Leo! Do not look far away for water. It is nearby!
Leo looked around, but he could not see any water. But again he heard the voice, and it said “Emperor Leo! Come into the shade of the grove, and draw some water that you find there, and give it to the thirsty man. Put some mud that you find in the spring on his eyes, and then you will know who I am, who has long made this place sacred! Soon I will help you build a church here, and all who come to this place and call on my name with faith will have healing of their ailments!
Leo took mud from the soggy ground, and put it on the blind man’s eyes, and gave him water to drink. All at once the blind man regained his sight, and went off into the city praising Mary.
Eventually, Leo Marcellus was made emperor, as the voice had predicted. Leo had the site of the spring cleaned up and a new church built there.
The Emperor Justinian, who reigned in the 6th century, became seriously ill. But he too heard a voice, this time in the middle of the night. The voice told him to rise up and go to the spring, and he would become healthy. The Emperor obeyed, and, so the tale goes, was cured, and he built a newer church at the site of the spring, and a monastery also was eventually created there.
Constantinople fell to the invading Muslims in 1453. Sultan Bayazid had the church at the spring completely destroyed, and the vicinity eventually became a Muslim cemetery. Christians were not permitted to even come near the site.
As time passed, the restrictions were eased, and Christians were allowed to build a small church there, but it was destroyed in 1821. Christians later cleaned up the site and found the spring again, and once more used its waters, and more miracles were attributed to the spring.
In 1835 another church was built on the site, and a church of the “Life-giving Spring” still exists today in the Balikli neighborhood of Istanbul, and the water from the spring flows into a basin in which fish swim. An old story says that when Constantinople fell to the Turks, a man was frying fish near the spring. When he heard the news, he said he would only believe it if the fish in his pan came to life again. The fish jumped from the pan into the spring, and began swimming about.
This origin story is a mixture of old legends and history.
As to the iconography of the “Life-giving Spring” type, as already mentioned, the essentials are the Mother and Child in the basin of a fountain, and often two angels, as well as people around the fountain.
There is much variation in the number and kinds of people around the fountain from example to example. Some show an emperor or emperors, queens, soldiers, the Patriarch of Constantinople, bishops, deacons, and all kinds of men, women and children coming to the fountain for healing. Some include Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom drawing water from the fountain and giving it to the afflicted. Sometimes other saints are shown. Often versions include, among the afflicted, a dead man restored to life by the water as well as a paralyzed man being healed. Renditions of the type may also include fish swimming in the tank below the chalice-shaped basin in which Mary sits, and from which the healing waters flow, as in the Greek example shown above.
The following Russian example, a “State Church” icon of the 18th century, names the two angels shown beside Mary as Mikhail (Michael) at left, and Gavriil (Gabriel) at right. The blue background of this icon is typical of many 18th-century State Church icons. It was a very popular color in that period:
As we have seen in previous postings, State Church icons tend to be painted more realistically in imitation of Western European painting, in contrast to the stylization and abstraction favored by the Old Believers, who preserved the earlier Russian manner of painting, though with some variation.