Christ and the Samaritan Woman by Lavinia Fontana

Lavinia Fontana

Christ and the Samaritan Woman, 1607, Oil on canvas, 161 x 120 cm, Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Q 623; 84087 S; de Rinaldis 1911 n. 239, Courtesy of the Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali e del Turismo – Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte

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A Pioneer Empowered

Commentary by

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.

 

References

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)