Often described as the first professional female artist in Italy (Murphy 2003: 30), Lavinia Fontana may have felt a special affinity for this subject. The Samaritan woman was a pioneer of sorts—the first to announce Christ to her people—and Fontana, as the only woman in Europe then painting altarpieces, had just joined the elite rank of painters who, in the words of Archbishop Gabriele Paleotti, were ‘tacit preachers to the people’ (Paleotti 2012: 301).
Twenty-six years earlier, her Noli me Tangere, showing Mary Magdalene as the first person to encounter the resurrected Christ, had catapulted her to success; now, famous throughout Europe, Fontana turned to another woman who was crucial to the message of universal salvation.
A seated Jesus rests his head on his palm while gazing up at the woman. He is fully absorbed in their conversation. She appears to be his whole world at the moment: one soul claiming his full attention. He gestures gently with an open hand, offering, not ordering. This kindness seems to startle her. Her brows rise, her fingers splay in surprise. Her head inclines towards Jesus as if drawn by the magnetic force of his promise, ‘the water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’ (John 4:14 NRSV).
Fontana accentuates the woman’s desirability. After decades of painting portraits of Bolognese noblewomen, the artist was expert at depicting fine materials and flattering clothes. The woman’s hair is elaborately dressed, her figure highlighted by the red band under her breasts and the belt cinching her waist. There is a flash of leg under the gauzy skirt. Little surprise that the apostles, discernible in the distance at the left, look taken aback. Why is the Master alone with a beautiful but forbidden woman (‘For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans’; John 4:9)?
It may be that Fontana, a married woman with eleven children, who had played by all the rules of her society to attain her position, felt compassion towards this more vulnerable ‘outsider’—much as Jesus did. A rope tied around the handle of the jug falls to the ground between the two. It is symbol of penitence, often worn around the neck in pious confraternities as a sign of the repentant sinner.
Despite her irregular personal life, the waters of eternal life will renew the Samaritan woman, preparing her to be a herald of Christ.
Murphy, Caroline P. 2003. Lavinia Fontana: A Painter and Her Patrons in Sixteenth-Century Bologna (New Haven: Yale University Press)
Paleotti, Gabriele. 2012. Discourse on Sacred and Profane Images, trans. by William McCuaig (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute)
4 Now when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John 2(although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), 3he left Judea and departed again to Galilee. 4He had to pass through Samarʹia. 5So he came to a city of Samarʹia, called Syʹchar, near the field that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. 6Jacob’s well was there, and so Jesus, wearied as he was with his journey, sat down beside the well. It was about the sixth hour.
7 There came a woman of Samarʹia to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. 9The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samarʹia?” For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. 10Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle?” 13Jesus said to her, “Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, 14but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 15The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.”
16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” 17The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly.” 19The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. 20Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” 21Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ); when he comes, he will show us all things.” 26Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”
27 Just then his disciples came. They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but none said, “What do you wish?” or, “Why are you talking with her?” 28So the woman left her water jar, and went away into the city, and said to the people, 29“Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” 30They went out of the city and were coming to him.
31 Meanwhile the disciples besought him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.” 32But he said to them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” 33So the disciples said to one another, “Has any one brought him food?” 34Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work. 35Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see how the fields are already white for harvest. 36He who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor; others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” 40So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41And many more believed because of his word. 42They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”