If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well, Vienna Genesis

by Dr. Nancy Ross

Caught in between

It's not hard to find inspirational quotes about the difficulty and rewards of change and transition in our lives. There is always something old that we want to hang on to and there is always something new that we want to explore. Transitions are difficult.
The visual arts have undergone numerous changes and transitions from their prehistoric origins to the present. In Europe, artists and patrons of the ancient world loved realistic details and veracity. Medieval artists and patrons instead valued symbolism and abstraction.
Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well, folio 7 recto from the Vienna Genesis, early 6th century, tempera, gold and silver on purple vellum, 12 1/2 x 9 1/4 inches (Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna)
Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well, folio 7 recto from the Vienna Genesis, early 6th century, tempera, gold and silver on purple vellum,
12-1/2 x 9-1/4 inches (Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna)
The artist of the Vienna Genesis was caught between these two artistic value systems. Perhaps working in Syria or in Constantinople in the early 6th century, the artist likely did not know that this book would become the oldest surviving well-preserved illustrated biblical book and an excellent example of an artist caught in a moment of transition. The Vienna Genesis is a fragment of a Greek copy of the Book of Genesis. Books were luxury items and this book was an exceptionally fine example. It was written in silver ink on parchment that had been dyed purple, the color associated with royalty and empire. There are 24 surviving folios (pages) and they are thought to have come from a much larger book that included perhaps 192 illustrations on 96 folios, each page laid out as you can see above in the example of Rebecca and Eliezer at the well.
This story is from Genesis 24. Abraham wanted to find a wife for his son Isaac and sent his servant Eliezer to find one from among Abraham’s extended family. Eliezer took ten of Abraham’s camels with him and stopped at a well to give them water. Eliezer prayed to God that Isaac’s future wife would assist him with watering his camels. Rebecca arrives on the scene and assists Eliezer, who knows that she is the woman for Isaac. This story is about God intervening to ensure a sound marriage for Abraham’s son.
Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well, folio 7 recto from the Vienna Genesis, early 6th century, tempera, gold ands silver on purple vellum, 12 1/2 x 9 1/4 inches (Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna)
Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well, detail of folio 7 recto from the Vienna Genesis, early 6th century, tempera, gold ands silver on purple vellum, 12 1/2 x 9 1/4 inches (Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna)

Two episodes

The illustration of this biblical story shows two episodes, which is common in medieval art.  Rebecca is shown twice, as she leaves her town to get water and then assisting Eliezer at the well with his camels. On the one hand, there are clear classical elements that recall artwork from ancient Greece and Rome. Rebecca walks by a colonnade (row of columns) that recall the details of classical architecture. Some of Eliezer’s camels are shaded to emphasize that some are in the front and others in the back. The camel on the far right has one of its back legs in shadow to show a spatial relationship.
Detail, Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well, folio 7 recto from the Vienna Genesis, early 6th century, tempera, gold ands silver on purple vellum, 12 1/2 x 9 1/4 inches (Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna)
Detail, Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well, folio 7 recto from the Vienna Genesis, early 6th century, tempera, gold ands silver on purple vellum, 12 1/2 x 9 1/4 inches (Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna)

Ancient Greek and Roman, but also Early Christian

The figure that most obviously recalls the Ancient Greek and Roman world is the reclining nude next to the river. This figure isn’t part of the story of Rebecca and Eliezer, but serves as a personification of the source of the well’s water.
River god Arno, c. 117–138 C.E. (with Renaissance era restorations), marble (Pio Clementino Museum, Vatican) (photo: Colin, CC-BY-SA-3.0)
River god Arno, c. 117–138 C.E. (with Renaissance era restorations), marble (Pio Clementino Museum, Vatican) (photo: Colin, CC-BY-SA-3.0)
Representations of rivers and other bodies of water as people were common in the classical world. The figure’s sensuality is emphasized by her nudity and reclining pose, typical of Greek and Roman art. This stands in contrast to Rebecca’s heavily draped and fully-covered body, typical of Early Christian art.
Detail, Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well, folio 7 recto from the Vienna Genesis, early 6th century, tempera, gold ands silver on purple vellum, 12 1/2 x 9 1/4 inches (Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna)
Detail, Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well, folio 7 recto from the Vienna Genesis, early 6th century, tempera, gold ands silver on purple vellum, 12 1/2 x 9 1/4 inches (Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna)
There are also elements of the illustration that recall Early Christian art, which is the earliest medieval art. The symbolic representation of the walled city, packed with rooftops and buildings that are not represented in a spatially consistent way, is typical of medieval art, as is the colonnade in miniature. Medieval artists weren’t interested in realistic, consistent representations of space, but were satisfied with the more symbolic representations that we see here. The folds of the clothing are also simplified and reduced. The figures appear to be more cartoon-like than portraits of actual people.
Today, it is a struggle for us to reconcile the figures of Rebecca, who only reveals her hands and face, with the casual nude reclining by the water. This contrast is evidence of the mix of artistic models and sources that were present in the early sixth century. To the artist who illustrated this book, I’m sure that this mix of styles and approaches made perfect sense, and represented a culture in transition.

Additional resources:

Essay by Dr. Nancy Ross

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user Todd Elliott
    What was the binder used to create the gold and/or silver ink (assuming they used finely ground metal in the ink)? Was it then painted onto the vellum or did they have styles with nibs, similar to quills?
    (8 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Миленa
      Another video, which was about manuscript-making, showed how the illuminatior applied glue to parts that were meant to be golden, and then applied pieces of gold leaf (very thin-hammered gold) to the parts with the glue. She then brushed off the excess gold. Maybe that was the same process?
      (5 votes)
  • leaf red style avatar for user Karina  Martinez
    What type of writing was used in this work?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user rdeyke
    "In Europe, artists and patrons of the ancient world loved realistic details and veracity. Medieval artists and patrons instead valued symbolism and abstraction."

    Wait, what? Outside of the Greek and Roman spheres of influence, ancient European art was almost always highly abstracted, from the paleolithic right up to medieval period. If anything, the medieval period is characterized by a transition to greater realism for the Celtic, Germanic and Slavic peoples who made up the bulk of the population of Europe.
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • starky ultimate style avatar for user petsrule845
    Who was the leader at this time?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user