Diego Rivera and religion parted ways early on, but the influences of Christianity on this Mexican artist's work were powerful. After a strict Catholic schooling, the budding painter enrolled in the San Carlos Academy at the age of 12. There, he was taught by Santiago Rebull, a painter shaped by the ideals of the devout brotherhood of painters in Rome known as the Nazarenes. Later, in Spain, Rivera would be further inspired by the religious art of El Greco. His youthful formation was steeped in an art of sacred narrative and expression.
From Spain Rivera went to Paris, and befriended Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, and other painters at the vanguard of an art unfettered by religion. He became intrigued by the new, daring style of Cubism.
The Woman at the Well was painted in Paris in 1913, and Cubism’s multi-faceted perspectives seem well suited to Rivera’s exploration of the conflicts between his past and his present.
The work might best be interpreted as adapting a biblical subject for a secular context. Perhaps it is an expression of solidarity. Though far from the fields of Mexico, and enjoying the very cosmopolitan artistic circles of Montparnasse, Rivera felt a strong sense of national identity, which drew him back to familiar imagery from home even in the midst of his innovative artistic experiments. Moreover, he was imbibing Marxist teaching, and was aware of the Communist movement’s celebration of women as workers. He painted The Woman at the Well in the same year that he produced The Adoration of the Virgin (another of his few overtly religious subjects) in which he depicted Mary with the appearance of a Mexican peasant woman. In The Woman at the Well, likewise, the large blocks of the woman’s arm and leg suggest the sturdy solidity of a country worker.
The woman is clearly defined amid the disrupted planes of Rivera’s painting: the furrowed brow, the rose sleeve, the curve of grey to form her hip. Jesus, however, is almost indistinguishable amid the jumbled shapes and symbols. A spray of brown in the upper centre of the composition may suggest hair, but no face is visible. Instead we see an orb with a bright bird to the left of it—perhaps a phoenix (an ancient symbol of resurrection). If Jesus is there, he is revealed only to the woman, not yet to the viewer.
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.”