Object of the Month: March 2021
Christ and the Samaritan Woman
Oil on canvas, c. 1620
Abraham Bloemaert, whose career spanned more than 50 years, adapted to several major changes in prevailing artistic styles. His art began firmly rooted in the late mannerist tradition with its elongated figure-types and complex compositions, but later changed to the tenebrist style brought from Italy by some of his students. As the master of many important Dutch painters, including Terbrugghen, van Bijlert, and Honthorst, Bloemaert is considered one of the most important and influential Dutch artists of the early 17th century.
The subject of Christ and the Samaritan Woman enjoyed popularity for many generations in the Netherlands. While artists generally painted this theme in a landscape (horizontal) orientation, Bloemaert chose a vertical one. This change allows him to focus on the figures in the foreground without surrounding countryside to distract the viewer. It also allows him to create a more intimate portrait of the two major characters in the story.
According to Art Daily, “The bulk of his painted oeuvre is made up of history pieces, paintings with large figures depicting an episode from a story. . . . Since the fifteenth century, art theorists had regarded history painting as the apex of the hierarchy of painterly genres.” And since this is a history painting, “to comprehend such a picture, [viewers] have to know the story” (Art Daily). Bloemaert portrays the Samaritan woman’s conversion as told in the Gospel of John, chapter 4. Of course, he needs to choose which moment in the storyline to freeze for the viewer’s consideration. But make no mistake, the whole story is important.
In John 4, a weary Christ confronts a marginalized woman with a simple question: “Give me to drink” (4:7). She responds with a defensive reminder that the “Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans” (4:9) who were usually ostracized as an ethnic group. The Jews hold that their descent from Jacob is the purer one, unadulterated by intermarriage as the Samaritans’ was. This woman is in a very uncomfortable position from the beginning of the conversation. She has also come to the well at noon. Drawing water, then carrying water any distance in the heat of the Middle Eastern day is burdensome. She must have had a compelling reason for her presence at that time. The well was a social gathering spot, a type of “watering hole” for women from the village and even herdsmen from the fields. It seems clear that the woman is avoiding people.
Jesus then asks her another question, a “who” question somewhat like hers: if she only knew Who was asking a drink from her, she would ask Him for water, and it would be “living water” (4:10), superior to that from the well. Defensively, she notes He has nothing with which to draw water from the well, unlike her rope and pitcher seen in the painting. She follows up with a history lesson: Jacob, a common ancestor, dug the well, and it gives good water, tasty and plentiful. Christ responds with an elaboration on His “living water.” The major difference, He says, between the types of water is their thirst-quenching properties. How she must have tired of the hot, dusty chore of fetching water from a well probably some distance from the village. Then she asks for His water in order to ease her workload: “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water” (4:15).
Next, Jesus changes the subject abruptly and tells her to call her husband. Here seems to be the moment of the painting, and the marginalization of the woman increases. With His hand outstretched Christ tells her she has had five husbands and is currently living with a man not her husband. Morally, the woman is on the fringe of society; undoubtedly this fact is the reason for her midday water run. In the painting, she tilts her head downward. She must have been astonished by His knowledge; she may have been ashamed. She certainly tries to deflect the conversation.
This woman, like most people, does not want to come directly to Jesus. But she moves one step closer: “I perceive that you are a prophet” (4:19). She poses a religious red herring question about the worship of God: whether the Jews were right about Jerusalem or the Samaritans about their mountain. Christ kindly answers her question, “Salvation is from the Jews” (4:22), from the line of David. She obviously knows her Old Testament and brings up not only the coming of the Messiah, but also His omniscience: “When He comes, He will tell us all things” (4:25). At this point Christ tells her, “I Who speak to you am He” (4:26).
She is on the fringes geographically. Though Jews would go miles out of the way to travel around Samaria if at all possible, yet Jesus “must needs go through” (4:4) the region. She is historically ostracized by the Jews as well and morally shunned by her village. But Jesus goes out of His way, literally, to tell her the truth about Himself. And she is the first to hear from His own lips that He is the Messiah, not only of the Jews, but of all who will accept His offer of living water. But it is the knowledge of her life that convinces her: she leaves her waterpot, goes into the village and tells all, “Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ? (4:29). The story ends with Christ staying two days in Sychar, Samaria, then returning to Galilee. There is no record of His working in any other town; it appears that meeting this woman and those of her village was His whole purpose for the journey into Samaria.
Bloemaert has symbolized the woman’s need by the empty copper pot near her feet; while the greenery at Christ’s feet is lush, testifying to the abundant life that Christ’s water gives. The choice of clothing color is also significant. While purple is the color of royalty, Christ’s inner garment is violet, a color representing love, truth, passion, and suffering. His outer cloak is a vibrant red, certainly an association with blood. As the Messiah, Christ would suffer a violent death for the sins of this woman and of the whole world, because He loved those who would surely die without His living water. That a dying Messiah offers living water is an interesting juxtaposition. The yellow of the woman’s gown signals revealed truth but can also signify degradation. Here Bloemaert’s color choices (his palette was distinctive) reveal the storyline too. A sinful, marginalized woman encounters revealed truth, both in word and in person. What she does with that truth removes her shame and allows her to live forever as a child of God.
Karen Rowe Jones, M&G board member