The Well as Symbol – 1

by Roy Fry & Tristan Gray Hulse

The Well or spring, irrespective of individual associated structures, cults, or legends, relating to actual examples, is a powerful symbol in its own right, and as such is used universally. Symbols being by nature both multivalent and ambiguous, the exact impact of any particular example of the well-as-symbol can be decided only by exploration of the context in which it appears. In the Middle Ages in Europe, there developed a devotional cult of the Five Wounds of the crucified Christ. One expression of this cult was to consider the Five Wounds as so many wells, the endless springing water from unknown depths  symbolising the eternal outflowing of God’s unfathomable love, as expressed in the wounds acquired by Christ during His self-sacrifice on the cross. Occasionally images of the wound-wells were used as amulets, intended to enable the wearer to avail himself of this outpouring of grace. One fine English example is the Coventry Ring, a gold finger-ring now preserved in the British Museum (see illustration). This shows an image of Christ, of the iconographic type known as the ‘Image of Pity’, and images of the Five Wounds. Inscriptions give the ‘names’ of the wounds: ‘the well of confort’, ‘the well of gracy [grace]’, the well of pitty’, ‘the well of merci’. Christ’s side-wound (devotion to which ultimately gave rise to the cult of the Sacred Heart, which also used well-symbolism extensively) is called ‘the well of evver lastingh lyffe’.

Text & Illustration © Roy Fry & Tristan Gray Hulse (1994)

Designed & Maintained by Richard L. Pederick (© 1999) | Created 15/11/99

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