JESUS AND THE WOMAN AT THE WELL: FRAMING THE PICTURE
We are digging into the story about Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman by a well.
The last time I posted, I began this exploration of this well-known story from the gospel of john by diving into an art historian’s way of analyzing pictures and a linguist taking a semiotic approach to understanding a form of Asian theater. I did this because I think these tools or lenses might be helpful in looking into all the dimensions this story.(They have helped me.) My other agenda, of course, is to set us up for looking at this story as `art.’
HOWEVER, before we explore the story AS art I want to take another brief (but tangled)detour and touch on how different artists have approached this story.
please click on the links to get to the artworks I refer to.
Above is an early fourth century image from the catacombs of this well known story .
The second link will get you to a comprehensive sampling of the way artists throughout history have approached this episode.
As you will see, painters from different eras have framed this story in the compositional and pictorial conventions of their time, in order to render it palpable or visually accessible to their peers. Sometimes the landscape surrounding the characters seems more European than Middle Eastern. Sometimes , the artists will depict lead `players’ and any supporting cast as contemporaries of the viewing audience.
One artist depicted the encounter as an almost convivial get together between two youngish people in their local bar. Jesus and woman share the same horizontal plane, and lean into a conversation, or pause and lean back as one or other scores a point in the friendly exchange. You would have to be `in the know’ to pick up on the momentous theological import of this occasion. The title plate helps.
Theologians and missiologists refer to these kinds of stylistic liberties as `contextualization.’ We can try to move from what they are talking about to (seeing) how these painters employed their tools of the trade. Stereotypically (enough) if we try and bend ideas about `contextualization ‘ around the notion of artistic depictions of biblical stories, we think of exotic cultures and `ethno arts.’ we might gravitate towards paintings involving a blue skinned Christ sitting cross legged beside a well, such as we might see the work of the Indian artist, A.D Thomas.
We might imagine the story as seen through the eyes and artistic skills of He Qui, and find ourselves looking at a brightly colored image that resembles a Chinese paper cut.
We might have harder time thinking about European artists in the medieval, Renaissance and Counter Reformational traditions as `contextualizers’…but this is what they did.
(However) It is not just dressing up characters and depicting buildings so that they look like come from the same historical era as artist and audience.
All these things are balanced by the economy of gesture. What I mean by this is we can simply recall where the story is going by looking at how Jesus points to himself in some of these paintings, or gestures behind him while making a remark (presumably?) about temples and traditions. The woman at the well seems incredulous that Jesus would ask her for a drink in one canvas. Her open mouth and gesturing hands are eloquent. In another she looks somewhat pensive or taken aback when Jesus confronts her about her five husbands(?). All this comes across in a downward glance, or her hand held over her breast. The artist uses Facial expression, body posture, and stylized gesture to underscore a conventional reading of this story in a setting in which art maker and viewer share a social/cultural context and a Christian tradition. .
In the 17th Century john, Bulwer wrote an entire treatise on the language of gestures, primarily for those in the pulpit. Gestures play a role, not only in helping to tell the story `behind’ the picture…but also in some traditions to impart or underscore somewhat condensed versions of spiritual concepts.
In some depictions of the woman at the well story, the background details and even the well itself is depicted in ways to communicate spiritual significance. Leaving natural representation behind, some iconographers would depict the well so that its shape echoed a baptistery….or its (now) six sides carried a subtle hint of the six ages of man. Even the woman at the well became stylized as an important apostolic figure….saint Photine. We could look at a picture about this story executed by an image-maker in the orthodox tradition and be confronted by a highly evolved symbolic language and condensed spiritual traditions.
And now for something……….
Someone like the Victorian painter William Dyce took a completely different approach . Dyce tried hard to get all the main points of the story, as he saw them, front and center. http://www.bmagic.org.uk/objects/1897P8/images/136062
Gone are the packed gestures, and the lush colors and textures that placed the story with a painter and era older European art history. Here, Dyce, in an illustrative style reminiscent of his contemporaries the Pre Raphaelites, composed a picture intended to be read primarily as a visual text…..and a text laden with inescapable theological implications. Christ, in his `humiliation’ is seated lower than the woman descending down the path towards the well. His purple robe (royalty?) is laid aside, while a flesh colored shirt (his incarnation?) gave way to some green cloth pushing through, suggesting perhaps the promise of new life. The thematic signaling `through ‘this illustrative artwork is not a rich feast for the senses as in some great European depictions of this scene in earlier eras of art history. Nor is it coded with the dense and sometimes obscure allusions made by the iconographers. What Dyce offers is a painted text, in which the artist wants to make sure that theologically correct premises about the incarnation and the new life were front, center and clearly available to the literate observer.
While I think that an artist like William Dyce needs to be looked at (appreciatively?) in his time and cultural framework, I also think that John’s original story and its telling has much to tell us about the complexities of art and in depth audience engagement.
I am not suggesting that he did not hold to at least some of the ideas artists like William Dyce set out to illustrate. I do want to suggest, however, that there is much more we can learn about art, interfaith dialogue, and open questions from John’s approach to storytelling.