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Italian, Roman, The Water of Life

Key facts
Full title The Water of Life
Artist Italian, Roman
Date made probably 19th century
Medium and support Mosaic
Dimensions 50 × 51 cm
Acquisition credit Presented by Henry Wagner through the Art Fund, 1919
Inventory number NG3403
Location Not on display
Collection Main Collection
The Water of Life
Italian, Roman

This unusual design is an adaptation of a twelfth-century mosaic that shows Christ crucified and decorates the apse of San Clemente in Rome. Its Cross is, as here, adorned with 12 doves; they represent the Twelve Apostles, Christ’s followers who spread his message after his death.

Looping tendrils of acanthus, a shrub with spiky leaves, surround the Cross at San Clemente – according to the Gospels, Roman soldiers made an acanthus crown for Christ just before his crucifixion. The plant survives in our version as a cluster of large leaves at the foot of the Cross. Beneath this, two stags drink, a reference to Psalm 42: ‘As the hart longs for flowing streams so my soul thirsts for thee, O God’. The water comes from four streams; the Book of Genesis mentions that four rivers flow from the Garden of Eden.

Christ’s foremost apostles, Peter and Paul, are seated on either side of the Cross. They too are copied from the San Clemente mosaic, where they appear to the upper right of the apse.

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