Palma il Vecchio, Jacopo Nigretti de Lavalle (Serina ca. 1480 - Venice 1528), Jacob and Rachel, ca. 1524/25, oil on canvas, 146,5 x 250,5 cm, Dresde, Gemäldegalerie.
Month of October.
Women of the Old Testament: Rachel.
Then Jacob continued on his journey and came to the land of the eastern peoples. There he saw a well in the open country, with three flocks of sheep lying near it because the flocks were watered from that well. The stone over the mouth of the well was large. When all the flocks were gathered there, the shepherds would roll the stone away from the well’s mouth and water the sheep. Then they would return the stone to its place over the mouth of the well. Jacob asked the shepherds, “My brothers, where are you from?” “We’re from Harran,” they replied. He said to them, “Do you know Laban, Nahor’s grandson?” “Yes, we know him,” they answered. Then Jacob asked them, “Is he well?” “Yes, he is,” they said, “and here comes his daughter Rachel with the sheep”.“Look,” he said, “the sun is still high; it is not time for the flocks to be gathered. Water the sheep and take them back to pasture.” “We can’t,” they replied, “until all the flocks are gathered and the stone has been rolled away from the mouth of the well. Then we will water the sheep.”
While he was still talking with them, Rachel came with her father’s sheep, for she was a shepherd. When Jacob saw Rachel daughter of his uncle Laban, and Laban’s sheep, he went over and rolled the stone away from the mouth of the well and watered his uncle’s sheep. Then Jacob kissed Rachel and began to weep aloud. He had told Rachel that he was a relative of her father and a son of Rebekah. So she ran and told her father. As soon as Laban heard the news about Jacob, his sister’s son, he hurried to meet him. He embraced him and kissed him and brought him to his home, and there Jacob told him all these things. Then Laban said to him, “You are my own flesh and blood.”After Jacob had stayed with him for a whole month. (Gen 29:1-14)
The beautiful painting by Palma the Elder reproduces what is narrated in the book of Genesis about the first meeting between Jacob and Rachel. It is a painting that induces serenity and calm in the observer. It is a painting that highlights the two protagonists well, placing them in a wide and charming landscape. It is a painting that shows us a rural world that has already disappeared.
Jacob saw Rachel where the beasts go to quench their thirst. He was amazed at her beauty and tried to get her attention by making the grazing cattle drink. Love at first sight, we would say today. Before finding his coronation in marriage, however, it will have to pass several trials that are narrated in the continuation of the book of Genesis.
The two young people are certainly the main subjects of the large canvas, but not the dominant ones. Rather, they are part of an ordered world in which nature has the upper hand. It does so through the deep landscape that leads our gaze towards the beautiful mountain that rises on the horizon. But also, the beautiful woods with their multiple shades of green speak of a happy balance between man and the earth. The presence of flocks and herds is also intended to indicate the wealth of Laban, father of Rachel and future father-in-law of Jacob.
The chaste kiss that the two young people exchange when they shake hands already foreshadows the intense relationship that will be established between them, despite the many difficulties that life will bring. Raquel must first wait for her father to fix her older sister, and then, for many years, she must endure the impossibility of giving her husband a child. But finally God hears her prayer and she too becomes a mother, giving birth first to Joseph and finally to Jacob's last son, Benjamin. And it is this birth that costs Rachel her life, she in fact, aware of her imminent death, decides to name her newborn son "Ben-onì" (which means "son of my pain"). But Jacob, Rachel’s husband and father of the newborn baby, from the love for his beloved wife, finds the strength to transform this tragic event in a sign of life and hope. So, he changes the name given by his mother to the Hebrew “Ben-yamin”, “son of the right hand”, of good fortune, so calling him "Lucky".
However, in Palma the Elder’s painting there are no signs of a future tragedy. Here everything is gleaming, everything shows happiness, everything suggests a beautiful and peaceful future. And Rachel, a beloved woman and then cried, is a fundamental part of this world.
(Contribution by Vito Pongolini)