At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Overbeck wanted to turn the wheels of art back three hundred years. The climate had already been too un-Christian for him at the art school in Vienna. Accordingly, he and a number of likeminded fellow artists went to Rome, where – drawing inspiration from the early German and the Italian renaissance – they set out to revive purely Christian painting. In this they succeeded. The group, known as the “Nazarenes”, attracted considerable attention. Overbeck was widely considered “by far the greatest artist who ever lived”. A number of painters from this community, for example Schadow, were appointed to key positions at German academies, among them the Städel, where Philipp Veit was director from 1830 to 1843.
Overbeck was commissioned by the Städel administration to execute this huge painting, one of the largest in the entire collection. It illustrates his artistic principles: some one hundred artists are gathered around the Fountain of life, along with Biblical figures, the emperor, the pope, monks in the role of teachers – and the Mother of God sits enthroned above them all. A typical Nazarene characteristic is the subdued palette; the objects and figures are depicted with clear contours. Immediately upon its long awaited arrival in Frankfurt, the painting led to a heated public controversy.