A fountain of yore

An exhibition of "The Maiden and the Jug" follows the evolution of the symbolism of the woman carrying water.

Nazareth Fountain 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Nazareth Fountain 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As we all know only too well, in this part of the world, water is an invaluable commodity.
But, while we – or at least some of the more environmentally aware of us – do our level best to use as the heaven-sent liquid as wisely as possible, working for our water and, possibly as a result, allocating it with care is at least as old as the Bible itself.
That comes across in crystal clear fashion in the “The Maiden and the Jug: A Local and Multicultural Image” exhibition, curated by Prof. Nurith Kenaan-Kedar, which opened at the Eretz Israel Museum in Ramat Aviv earlier this month. Take, for example, the deceptively simple but nonetheless inviting proposal for an Israeli tourism poster, created by Pesach Ir-Shai in the early 1950s. The caption reads “Follow the Sun, Visit Israel” – presumably aimed at North Americans and people from northern Europe who generally had to endure gloomy or unpredictable weather.
That is certainly not a new tourism marketing ploy, but the minimalistic graphic figure in the poster is that of the archetypal female water carrier.
One only has to recall how Jacob falls for Laban’s daughter Rachel, after helping the latter draw water for her flock of sheep, to immediately get a whiff of the classic biblical pitcheron-shoulder pose. The leaders of the modern State of Israel have tended to keep the image alive, and the exhibition also features a photograph of a carpet designed in 1957 by Oded Burla and placed in the relatively humble official reception facility of then-president Yitzhak Ben-Zvi’s official Jerusalem residence, which has a couple of maiden images that recur around the carpet accompanied by the same number of pitchers. One of the young women also bears a healthy-looking wheat sheaf, and you don’t have to be an Einstein to equate the provision of water with the cultivation of crops for human consumption.
The young woman and the jug was a very conspicuous and potent combination in the Yishuv prior to the creation of the State of Israel – particularly in the 1920s and 1930s – as well as in the early years of the state. It was an Arab-biblical character that crossed cultural boundaries and quickly became a highly visible Israeli image that featured in commercial items such as souvenirs, posters and greetings cards, as well as being cited in song and dance.
“The Maiden and the Jug” follows the evolution of the image, starting with over a century of photographic documentation of the Virgin’s Well and its water carriers in Nazareth, and conveys the adaptation of the image of the Arab girl drawing water in Israeli visual culture.
“Since the beginning of the 20th century, new visual images have been formed that reflect the perceptions of the Jewish-Zionist Yishuv in the Land of Israel and of the very beginning of the State of Israel,” notes Kenaan- Kedar. “These were inspired by the Bible – such as the exodus from Egypt – sacred sites like the Western Wall and Rachel’s Tomb, Judaica items like hanukkiot, and the lives of the early pioneers. These figures appear in canonical Israeli art and in folk art, and one of the most prominent is ‘the girl and the jug,’ which is the centerpiece of this exhibition and the catalogue.”
One of the most alluring items in the show is a delightfully innocent looking postcard of “The Nazareth Fountain (Sabil)” dating from the early years of the last century. The pitchers look like they are hovering over the beatifically smiling young women standing in front of the fountain – as if they were processed by some primordial version of Photoshop – while a couple of tarbush–wearing young men secure jerrycans, presumably full of water, to a patient mule.
Sabil, as we are told by Dr. Sharif Sharif-Safadi in the handsome book that goes with the show, is a public fountain that provides drinking water for all and sundry. Miriam’s Fountain, or Mary’s Well, in Nazareth has been in service for millennia and served as a symbol of life in this part of the world for centuries.
“Mary’s Well was the only sabil in Nazareth during the Ottoman era,” explains Sharif-Safadi. “In the Orient drinking water is not readily available everywhere, so rulers and dignitaries took pains to provide local inhabitants with water via public water facilities called sabils, as a charitable deed and as a gesture of benevolence and tolerance to the local citizens.”
Sharif-Safadi adds that the provision of water also took on religious significance. “In Arabic, sabil means ‘way.’ The origin of the word in Arabic comes from the concept of fi sabil Allah, in other words a person who helps people with water on altruistic grounds.” Sabils often sported inscriptions that bore testimony to the generosity of the philanthropist who paid for construction of the water outlet in question. Sabils were originally located close to mosques, and it was only in the Ottoman Era that they began to be found alongside main thoroughfares and at major crossroads.
According to Kenaan-Kedar, European artists have long been fired by the biblical tale of the encounter between Abraham’s servant Eliezer and Rebekah by a well, after Eliezer was dispatched to secure her betrothal to Isaac. Ottavio Vannini’s early 17th-century painting, which shows Rebekah virtuously pouring water into a bowl for Eliezer, is a case in point, while Nicolas Poussin’s Eliezer and Rebekah at the Well, from 1648, is a highly colorful work which portrays a large group of women with pitchers, in addition to the eponymous female water carrier. “In the 19th century a romantic genre of portraying a woman drawing water from a well, or a young girl carrying a jug, evolves,” continues Kenaan-Kedar. “You also have, for example, a work by [French Romantic painter] Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, and there are many others. In the annals of European art, the images of Rebekah and Eliezer are generally depicted in the spirit of the biblical description, whereby the choice of the salient junctures of the story changes through the different eras.” In more contemporary times, the biblical twosome also featured in several works by Marc Chagall.
Writers in the early years of popular Hebrew song also fed off the image of the well and the water carrier.
Israel Prize laureate Levin Kipnis, for example, wrote the lyrics for “Eliezer and Rebekah,” which were set to music by Yedidia Admon, and Bracha Naor, Emmanuel Zamir and Shmuel Bass also cited water-bearing girls in their pre-state Hebrew numbers.
The photographic material in “The Maiden and the Jug” indicate there were plenty of newly arrived young Jewish women who quickly adopted the attire of their local Arab counterparts, and were happy to have their picture taken in the pose of a water carrier. “They often also wore European garments, and the photos were probably taken to send to their families abroad, to show how they were taking on the customs and lifestyle of the Middle East,” explains Kenaan- Kedar. “The photographs do not reveal a way of life, rather an aspiration to fit in with life in this part of the world, without looking too deeply into the figures and their significance.”
Whether the subjects of the quaintlooking photographs of yore were serious about getting into the flow of pre-state Palestine or not, they make for a pleasant eyeful.
For more information about the “The Maiden and the Jug: A Local and Multicultural Image” exhibition: (03) 641-5244 and www.eretzmuseum.org.il. The exhibition closes on March 30, 2014.