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To the “Jerusalem of Tuscany” and Back

Ongoing research on a Renaissance relief
Alexander J. Noelle, Assistant Curator of European Paintings and Sculpture, 1500–1800
June 1, 2024
Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well, c. 1500–1530. Giovanni della Robbia (Italian, 1469–1529/30). 1922.210

In spring 2023, Cory Korkow, curator of European paintings and sculpture, 1500–1800, and I journeyed to Tuscany to research the CMA’s monumental sculpture Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well (c. 1500–1530), attributed to Giovanni della Robbia and his workshop. This rare polychrome terracotta relief measuring more than seven feet tall and nearly six feet wide has been a cornerstone of the museum’s Renaissance collection since its acquisition in 1922, and visitors may remember it from the CMA’s 2021 Stories from Storage exhibition, which highlighted objects that are unable to be put on permanent view due to their condition.

man flipping through files in archive
Conducting archival research in the Phototek of the Kunsthistorisches Institut in the Palazzo Grifoni Budini Gattai in Florence, Italy

Cory and I began our studies in the small Tuscan hilltop town of Montaione, located 30 miles southwest of Florence. The Della Robbia relief was originally sculpted for Montaione’s Sacro Monte (sacred mountain) of San Vivaldo, a Franciscan pilgrimage site with chapels depicting episodes from the Passion of Christ that pilgrims could witness firsthand as they traveled through this “Jerusalem of Tuscany.” The scene on the Cleveland relief, however, is unique in the series, as it was sculpted to be viewed by the resident monks instead of pilgrims, and it was located in their private open-air well house / chapel. 

Derived from the Gospel of John, the narrative is set outside the city walls of Sychar, or Shechem, the ruins of which are now in the West Bank. Della Robbia’s relief illustrates the scene: Christ sits at the well conversing with the Samaritan woman who draws water. He reaches out to her, as if in blessing, and she looks at him quizzically. Behind, against the city walls of Sychar, the 12 apostles return from procuring food. At the right, we can even see Peter and John’s surprise at encountering Jesus in discussion with a Samaritan woman. 

old home on grass
The well house / chapel of the Samaritan woman with a reproduction of the relief now in Cleveland

Unfortunately, Christ and the Samaritan Woman sustained significant environmental damage in its original outdoor location, leading to multiple restorations over the centuries. In 1912, the monks sold the sculpture to Florentine dealer Elia Volpi, intending to direct the proceeds to conserve the remaining chapels frequented by pilgrims. At San Vivaldo, Cory and I visited the former chapel of Christ and the Samaritan Woman—which now features a replica of the relief—and examined the extant sculptures throughout the Sacro Monte in order to compare the myriad figures and compositions with the CMA sculpture.

Following the trail of Christ and the Samaritan Woman to Florence, we conducted research in the archives of the Tuscan city, including the Volpi archives at both the Palazzo Davanzati and the Phototek of the Kunsthistorisches Institut located in the Palazzo Grifoni Budini Gattai. We located the record of its 1914 sale to M. and R. Stora Brothers, the Paris-based dealers who eventually sold the relief to Cleveland industrialist and philanthropist Samuel Mather in 1922. Mather purchased the relief as a gift for the CMA, where it was installed in the galleries shortly after its arrival in Cleveland.

While Christ and the Samaritan Woman had been installed in the Renaissance galleries and former Garden Court since its acquisition, when the museum underwent a full renovation, expansion, and reinstallation in 2005, it was removed from view, as its condition was too compromised for public display. The relief has been relocated to the CMA’s world-class conservation labs for analysis as we continue to assess its condition in the hopes that it can one day return to permanent view following a comprehensive conservation treatment. Curatorial research is also ongoing; trips such as our Tuscan sojourn provide vital clues that inform the gaps in the artwork’s provenance as well as allow for the further evaluation of the attribution and historical significance of Christ and the Samaritan Woman.