“The Fountain of Life,” 1590. Cristóbal de Velasco. Oil on panel. Allen Memorial Art Museum, R.T. Miller Jr. Fund, 1952.13.

By Becky Raspe

From first glance, one could be drawn into “The Fountain of Life” by Cristóbal de Velasco for its striking colors, intricate details and varied textures. Moving through the levels, sections and specific groups of activity, you get snapshots into moments part of a larger scene.

But on further inspection, viewers are taken into a larger narrative – Jewish-Christian relations in the late 1500s. Featuring Torah scrolls adorned with Hebrew texts, the painting serves as a commentary on Jewish life in Spain. On the left lower level of the painting, Christian worshipers can be seen as calm, cool and collected, juxtaposed against the movement and disarray of the Jews depicted on the other side of a baptismal basin filled with coins. Down the center is the artist’s rendition of Jesus Christ, pictured with a lamb, referencing his title as the Lamb of God.


Painted over 400 years ago, one is confronted with the antisemitic tropes displayed in “The Fountain of Life” that still permeate society today. Alexandra Letvin, assistant curator of European and American art at the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College, explores the harmful ideologies depicted in the painting, how it provides a snapshot into the lives of Spanish Jews at the turn of a century, and how modern Jews and Christians can explore it as a means to confront religious differences.

CANVAS: What makes this piece noteworthy? 

LETVIN: From a visual perspective, it is a stunning painting. The level of detail – of the architecture, the individual figures’ expressions, the textiles and even the plant life – is spectacular. It draws viewers in and rewards close and sustained looking. I would encourage viewers to begin by orienting themselves to the composition, considering, for example, how the tripartite structure of the architecture divides the scene, and how these three different zones of activity relate to each other.

From a historical perspective, the painting is significant for several reasons. It is related to a much earlier work dated around 1440-1450 and attributed to the Netherlandish artist Jan van Eyck and his workshop that is now in the Prado Museum in Madrid. Both the AMAM and Prado paintings present a complex message about Christian salvation based on the differences between Christianity and Judaism, personified as church and synagogue in the lower level of the painting. Made 150 years apart, the paintings, however, speak to two different moments in the history of Spanish Jews.

CANVAS: What response does this painting invoke?

LETVIN: A viewer might step away from the painting awed by the artist’s use of color and handling of paint, or overwhelmed by the painting’s complex composition and theological message. But its depiction of Jews is also harmful and upsetting. In comparison to the orderly, calm Christians on the left, the Jews are shown as blind and bumbling. This reflects a common trope at the time that Jews were blinded by an only physical, or literal, understanding of the Old Testament, unlike Christians who were able to move from a literal to a spiritual understanding of the text.

CANVAS: What was happening in the art world, or world in general, at the time that might have influenced the work?

LETVIN: The Prado painting was made at a time of growing antisemitism in Spain, following the 1391 pogroms and culminating in the 1492 edict of expulsion. The AMAM painting coincides with a later moment, in which there was a growing interest among intellectuals and elites in learning to read Hebrew as well as Greek and Arabic. The clearest sign of this shift in attitude in the AMAM painting is that the Hebrew text on the scrolls held by the Jews is legible and identifiable as passages from the Psalms that were understood by Christians as references to the Eucharist. In the Prado painting, in contrast, the text is illegible. This is perhaps not surprising, as the AMAM’s painting was commissioned by García de Loaysa y Girón (1534-1599), archbishop of Toledo and tutor of the future King Philip III, who would have been able to read Hebrew.

CANVAS: What makes this painting relevant today?

LETVIN: To me, a central question in discussing this painting is: how can we take a harmful image like this and use it to advance a more nuanced understanding both of the historical context in which it was made and religious difference and conflict today? It also opens up conversations about the role of images in constructing and reinforcing stereotypes, something particularly relevant with our passive and active consumption of images online and in the world around us. 

On view

“The Fountain of Life” 

Artist: Cristóbal de Velasco (Spanish, 1588-1617)

Year: 1590

Details: Oil on panel, 72 1/16 x 45 1/16 in. (183 x 114.4 cm.)

Acquired: Likely hung in the cathedral of Palencia in northern Spain in the 18th century; then was seized by French troops during the Peninsular War (1807-1814); by 1952, it was in a private collection in New York and then sold to the Allen Memorial Art Museum by a New York gallery.

Find it: The painting is on view in Nord Gallery, alongside other European works from the 1300s to 1600s.