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Christ and the Samaritan Woman

Christ and the Samaritan Woman

Philippe de Champaigne (1602-1674). Musée des Beaux-Arts – Caen. 1648

John tells of the encounter of Jesus with a woman of Samaria. Jesus holds a conversation with a Samaritan woman, which is doubly astonishing to his disciples. For the Samaritans were not considered real Jews but strangers in their own country. And Jesus was talking to a woman, discussing and arguing with her, which is also unusual when one takes into respect that only men were taught in the Temple. As always, John gives account of this with numerous details and he takes his time in his tale. By that style, John differs from the other Evangelists. Matthew, Mark and Luke only explain the essence of an encounter of Jesus. They just depict enough as is needed for the essential message. John is the real storyteller, who takes joy in explaining how things really happened in long. His anecdotes and conversations are marvels of realism.

John said that when the Pharisees found out that Jesus - but in fact his disciples – baptised more than John, Jesus left Judaea and went back to Galilee. He had to pass through Samaria. On the way he came to the Samaritan town called Sychar near the land that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there and Jesus, tired by the journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour. When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Give me something to drink”. His disciples had gone into the town to buy food. The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew. How is it that you ask me, a Samaritan, for something to drink?” Jews, of course, do not associate with Samaritans. Jesus replied to her, “If only you knew what God is offering and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me something to drink”, you would have been the one to ask, and he would have give you living water.”

“You have no bucket, sir”, she answered, “and the well is deep; how do you get this living water? Are you a greater man than our father Jacob, who gave us this well and drank from it himself with his sons and his cattle?” Jesus replied: “Whoever drinks this water will be thirsty again; but no one who drinks the water that I shall give will ever be thirsty again: the water that I shall give will become a spring of water within, welling up for eternal life.” G38

“Sir”, said the woman, “give me some of that water, so that I may never be thirsty or come here again to draw water.” “Go, and call your husband,” said Jesus to her, and come back here. The woman answered, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right to say, ”I have no husband”; for although you have had five, the one you now have is not your husband. You spoke the truth here.” G38

“I see you are a prophet, sir,” said the woman. “Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, though you say that Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship.” Jesus said: “Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation comes from the Jews. But the hour is coming – indeed is already here – when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth: that is the kind of worshipper the Father seeks. God is spirit and those who worship must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah – that is, Christ – is coming; and when he comes he will explain everything. Jesus said, “That is who I am, I who speak to you.” G38

At this point his disciples returned and were surprised to find him speaking to a woman, though none of them asked, “What do you want from her?” or, “What are you talking to her about?” The woman put down her water jar and hurried back to the town to tell the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have done; could this be the Christ?” This brought people out of the town and they made their way towards him. Many Samaritans of that town believed in him on the strength of the woman’s words of testimony, “He told me everything I have done.” So, when the Samaritans came up to him, they begged him to stay with them. He stayed for two days, and many more came to believe on the strength of the words he spoke to them. And they said to the woman, “Now we believe no longer because of what you told us; we have heard him ourselves and we know that he is indeed the Saviour of the world.”G38

Jesus thus spoke a long time to the Samaritan woman. We know she lived in sin with a man who was not her husband. Jesus could talk on the living water and reveal himself as the Messiah. We left out an entire passage where Jesus talks to his disciples on the grain and food of eternal life. And the story showed again how people came under the spell of Jesus’ words so that they even did not need to witness a miracle or hear a prophecy anymore to believe in him.

Philippe de Champaigne was born in Brussels in 1602; he belongs fully to the glorious seventeenth century. Born in Brabant, now in Belgium, he lived most of his life in France however, and died in Paris in 1674. He could have become one of the greatest Baroque painters of the Southern Netherlands, of Flanders and Brabant, where Anthony van Dyck, Jan Brueghel the Younger and Jacob Jordaens were his contemporaries. But after first studies with the landscape painter Fougnières, de Champaigne tried to enter the workshop of Pieter Paul Rubens in Antwerp. He was rejected. So he left for Paris where his reputation grew. He married the daughter of the Painter of the Queen, Duchesne. In the end he replaced Duchesne at the court of the French king Louis XIII.

Philippe de Champaigne was foremost a painter of religious scenes. He is especially well known for his scenes of the life of the Virgin Mary. Philippe de Champaigne made about twenty different versions of the Annunciation. In 1637 he received a royal commission to paint a large canvas called ‘The Vow of Louis XIII’ for the cathedral of Paris. Louis XIII had ordered this painting to thank the Virgin for the successes gained by his armiesF11. Louis XIII at that occasion had even consecrated France to the Virgin.

De Champaigne had seen to profusion and had learnt Baroque art in Brabant, but he became quite another painter in Paris. France was marked by a new classical austerity, a style that would later be academised by Charles Le Brun. De Champaigne contributed to that style. The painters Simon Vouet, then Nicolas Poussin set the tone and fixed the tastes and fashions in the pictorial arts, even though Poussin worked in Rome. Claude Vignon and Laurent de la Hyre also worked in a clear sculptural way. The Caravagesque contrasts between light and darkness did not really take hold in France. Monumentality and transparency of theme won in France over obscurity and passion. No intimate scenes but a courtly art of state decorum was in fashion in that country, which was almost completely centred on Paris. Philippe de Champaigne fell at ease in this French austere mode, maybe because he had so well known the Flemish tradition of detail and Flanders’ devotion.

The ‘Samaritan Woman’ of de Champaigne looks indeed like a picture of classic antiquity. The colours are crystal clear, limpid, though rich in variation. Jesus’ blue cloak contrasts with the opposite yellow of the cloak of the Samaritan woman. The soft blue sky of the background finds similar tones in the shirts of Jesus and the woman, in the greys of the well and of the mountain and castle of the background. The mountain and its structure resembling a castle represent the holy Gerizim of the Samaritans.

Philippe de Champaigne’s composition is rich and elaborated. The canvas is a round tondo. To match this form, the painter has drawn Jesus in an oblique sitting pose. The mountain slope also follows this curve. On the other side of the frame, the outstretched arm of the Samaritan fills the furthest round contours of the tondo. It was never an easy feat to present figures in the difficult round shape of a tondo and only the greatest masters like Raffaello Sanzio could make a success of scenes in these forms. De Champaigne has succeeded in giving his figures the natural gestures of a conversation – the real subject of the encounter – to fill the space. He did paint neither a realistic nor a Baroque picture. Vivid expression of engaging emotions has given way to idealised faces and frozen gestures instead of passionate movement. The verticality of the lines emphasises this impression. This verticality and the clear detail of lines in the robes remind of International Gothic art.

The colour scheme of the picture is sophisticated. Heavy blue and strong yellow is in the lower part of the picture, each filling a quarter of the tondo. Softer hues are in the upper part, a greenish hue to the right and a reddish one on the left. Each time complementary colours, each in a quarter of the frame. The heavier colours below give stability, solid grounding to the scene.

The theme of the encounter is kept as in the story of John. Jesus is sitting on the stairs of a well. These remember ancient Roman ruins and may be a symbol of the old beliefs that Jesus has come to demolish. The Samaritan woman stands next to the well and has deposed her stone jar, which she has brought to carry the water. Both these are symmetrically painted opposite the central vertical diameter of the tondo.

The ‘Samaritan Woman’ of Philippe de Champaigne was painted in 1649, when the artist was forty-six years old. He was in the full power of his mature art by then. The picture seems easy and simple, but when one takes a closer look and analyses it as we have done, we find all its complexity and it appears to be a scene that was not easy at all to depict in the constraints of a round tondo. The quiet loveliness in a respectful image proves de Champaigne to be a great master. He has meticulously added a text in French to his picture, of which we give the translation: ‘Jesus is seated, the Samaritan is standing, the pitcher and the well are evoked and the Apostles that interrogate Christ on this unusual encounter appear in the far’F11. De Champaigne has indeed used the traditional fashion of representing the ‘Samaritan Woman’. There is always Jesus and the woman, the well and pitcher, and the apostles arriving. The Samaritan in some Italian examples has a bare breast to indicate an adulteress, but for the devote de Champaigne this was impossible to paint. The text added by de Champaigne proves that the artist had read the Gospel scene with strong attention. He understood the significance of the event, one of the rare conversations of Jesus with a non-Jew and with a woman of a refused sect. De Champaigne calls it an unusual encounter as if he himself had been astonished while reading the scene. He was probably puzzled, enchanted, and made it a theme of one of his major paintings.

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