Christ and the Samaritan Woman by Unknown artist

Unknown artist

Christ and the Samaritan Woman, 6th century, Mosaic, Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

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A Witness Summoned

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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

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