Part of the mosaic scheme in nave of the sixth-century Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, this is one of thirteen New Testament episodes depicted in the uppermost band of the north wall. It stands out because of the vivid colour of the woman’s robe. Jesus is draped in dark purple while most of the other figures in the series wear white togas. The Samaritan woman, by contrast, is cloaked in fiery orange. She shares this notable brightness with a seraph four panels away—a thought-provoking choice. It may signify her role as a messenger to her people, an angelos to the Samaritans.
To render the work visually effective from a distance (it is positioned high up on the wall of the nave) the artist has reduced the scene to just three figures: Jesus, the woman, and an apostle. The well at the centre of this composition is described in the biblical text but may here also represent baptism, the sacrament par excellence of the early Church (Grabar 1968: 222).
Sixth-century notions of decorum required that the woman’s hair and body be well-covered, but this in no way diminishes her gracefulness. By bending to draw up the water she seems almost to bow to Jesus, yet the purple stripes of her dress mirror the kingly violet of his tunic. These marks of nobility in the woman’s garb are perhaps intended to exalt her role: she will soon lead her people to the Saviour.
The apostle does not seem surprised by Jesus’s conversation with the woman, despite what the text recounts (John 4:27). Instead, he points calmly in the direction of the high altar of the church, while gazing, like Jesus himself, towards the viewer. He straddles two dimensions, that of the narrative and that of viewer, directing the beholder’s attention (as John’s Gospel does) from the historical event to the eternal truths of faith.
Despite her ‘five husbands’ and present presumed lover, the woman was chosen for a personal revelation on the part of God-made-man. Like many he met, her encounter with Christ is intimate: during their exchange he reveals the private details of her life and the needs of her soul. The mosaic’s lack of extraneous detail emphasizes this intimacy.
She, as a result, will return to her town proclaiming him—becoming a bridge to reconcile her Samaritan people with the Jews by bringing them face to face with the Messiah himself.
Grabar, André. 1968. Christian Iconography: A Study of its Origins (Princeton: Princeton University Press)
Wilpert, Joseph. 1932. I Sarcofagi christiani antichi, vol 1., Monumenti dell'antichità cristiana, pubblicati per cura del Pontificio istituto di archeologia cristiana
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.”