Faith through Art: Pre-Advent reflections on ‘Rebekah and Eliezer at the Well’
Caption: “Rebekah and Eliezer at the Well” was painted by Santi de Tito in the 16th century. (Photo by Rick Hall, and courtesy Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Archer M. Huntington Museum, 1984)
By Norman Farmer
The proximity of Advent invites reflections on the genealogy of Jesus (Mt 1:1-17), commencing with Abraham and the Covenant of God (Gn 15) and culminating in “the fullness of time” when the Son of God comes “to ransom” all who, like Isaac, “are children of the promise” (Gal 4:4-7, 28). “Faith through Art,” accordingly, reflects on the stunningly beautiful painting of “Rebekah and Eliezer at the Well” where Santi di Tito (1536-1603) contemplates through images the first step in that succession when Abraham sends his “senior servant” back to the land of his kindred “to get a wife for his son, Isaac” and finds Rebekah at the well of Nahor.
The story is told in Genesis 24, where the subliminal theme is of gifts, giving, prayer and reciprocity. This “loop or pattern of grace,” Bishop Robert Barron calls it in “The Priority of Christ” (2007, p. 85), is repeated in subsequent Old Testament encounters at wells when Isaac actually meets Rebekah at the well of Beer-she-ba (v.62 & Gen 16:14), when Jacob meets Rachel, and when Moses meets Zephorah, culminating in the New Testament (Jn 4: 4-42) when Jesus, at the Well of Jacob, “presents himself as the giver of gifts” and draws “the Samaritan woman into that peculiar rhythm of grace through which alone authentic being can be maintained,” Bishop Barron writes.
Why this should happen at all is the unfathomable mystery of divine love that Origen discerns in his homily on Genesis 24: “Observe how many things take place at waters, so that you too may be invited to come daily to the waters of the word of God and stand by its wells ... Do you think that it always happens by chance that the patriarchs go to wells and obtain their marriages at waters? ... I say that the marriages of saints are the union of the soul with the word of God ... [and] that this union cannot come about otherwise than through instruction in the divine books, which are figuratively called wells” (Homilies on Genesis and Exodus, trans. Heine).
Santi di Tito figures precisely these things in the way St. Augustine has explained, “When led to material signs of spiritual realities, the soul gains strength in the very act of passage from the material to the spiritual, like the flame of a torch that as it moves, burns ever more intensely,” (Epistles 5, 11.21).
The painting is a feast for the eyes. In a landscape of breathtaking natural beauty, the works of God and of man merge in the lingering light that brushes the evening clouds with white but reserves its brightest beams for the figures in the foreground. It is “the time when women go to draw water” and where Eliezer makes the camels “kneel at the well outside the city” (v.11). As Eliezer’s gentle-faced men ceremoniously bring forward the gifts Abraham has sent with his “senior servant,” Eliezer and Rebekah meet at a well, the symbol for everything they discuss in verses 17- 26 and, in fact the true mystical subject of the entire painting! Even the large tree behind the well evokes reflection, alluding as it does to the Terebinth of Mambre (Gen 12:6; 13:18; 18:1) at the “Well of the Oath” (Gn 21:33), where Abraham built altars and received the three angels.
Through posture and demeanor Rebekah expresses the poise and resourcefulness of innate nobility, that lovely, unforgettable face radiant with the vitality of noble awe and noble curiosity. Her image, in fact, may even be the portrait of an actual person, who, like Dante’s Beatrice, was herself “very beautiful, a virgin, [and] untouched by man” (v.16). Attentive, respectful, she is eager to oblige as Eliezer, with ceremonial tact and deference asks, “Please give me a sip of water from your jug” (v.17). Is it by chance, we may wonder, that his left hand pointing toward the jug appears to cover her heart?
His stance and demeanor, as well, define him as one whose inner relation to God is grounded in prayer and thanksgiving. “Lord God of my master Abraham,” he prays upon receiving his charge, “let it turn out favorably for me today and thus deal graciously with my master Abraham” (v.12), an expressive example of his priorities. When he sees Rebekah leap into action (v.19-20), Eliezer praises God for making “his errand successful” (v.21), reciprocating immediately with gifts of his own (v.22). When Rebekah identifies herself and, with authority that belies her years, welcomes the guests and their animals for the night, Eliezer again thanks God, who “has led me straight to the house of my master’s brother” (v.27). Then, when Laban rushes to escort Eliezer into the family circle (v.31-2), these graced rhythms of generosity, reciprocity, and consistency grow increasingly prominent as the story builds to its climax and conclusion.
To read and re-read this story alongside Santi di Tito’s transposition of its words into images, is to discover anew the supernatural gift that God of his free benevolence, bestows on us for our eternal salvation –– indeed, an inspirational preparation for the coming season.