Have you ever heard of the Vitruvian Man? It’s an image from 1490 inked by Leonardo da Vinci that came to symbolize the centrality of the individual in the Renaissance. It is quite clearly a depiction of a muscular, European male. His body is perfectly proportionate and thus simultaneously represents ideal humanity and a microcosm of the universe. The Vitruvian Man is so named after the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius who describes the proportions and symmetry of a temple as being analogous to the proportions of a man.
As an architect and scholar in the humanities, I’ve been acquainted with the Vitruvian Man for many years now. I even had a da Vinci theme on my PC’s Windows software about 15 years ago, meaning that the image of the Vitruvian Man appeared regularly on my desktop and screen saver. There was nothing problematic to me about his presence until a few days ago, when I took part in a discussion about teaching philosophies with some new friends and academic colleagues.
I was listening to Tamara Lewis, an assistant professor in religion whose research and teaching addresses the medieval and Renaissance periods. When she described a metaphor for her teaching philosophy, she discussed replacing the symbol of Vitruvian Man with the “woman at the well.” The woman at the well is a figure in Christian stories about Jesus and his teachings. Her narrative in the Bible is placed in chapter 4 of the Gospel according to John. Int eh story, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at a well. He asks her for a drink, which begins a meaningful exchange about spiritual teachings. Jesus’ male disciples and surprised to witness this exchange, presumably because she is a woman and a Samaritan, as the text tells us that Jews do not associate with Samaritans. The woman goes back to her town, tells people about her encounter with Jesus, whom she believes is the Messiah, which prompts many of them to come to him and also believe.
Dr. Lewis described how her presence in the historical study of medieval or Renaissance periods is sometimes questioned and how the woman at the well represents this presumed misplacement. Her metaphor caught my attention not just because of its profound coherence within her own career trajectory and narrative, but its coherence within mine. As a black feminist, religion scholar, and practicing Christian, I often wrestle with questions of belonging and being in or out of place.
This summer, I’m taking the time to think about broad questions and do some vision casting. This past December, Grace Kao wrote about using sabbatical time differently, and I’ve connected this to my own practice of Sabbath keeping as a ritual. I dedicate specific times to cease work. I am engaging in some productive activity this summer, but I’m also honoring one of the truest blessings and privileges of full-time employment in my profession, which is break time to rest, reflect, and plan for the seasons ahead. The metaphor of woman at the well who intentionally replaces the Vitruvian Man provokes these questions in my reflection:
Who is the default person around which the places we inhabit are constructed? Who sits at the center of our stories about the places we will go?
As the little bio that follows my posts says, in my professional career I examine issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly through aesthetic and artistic practices. I’m currently writing a book-length project about theological ethics and architectural design. So these days I’m thinking a lot about the way public spaces and built environments communicate the values of those who build them and inhabit them. One of the questions I’m wrestling with is the way “common” spaces are defined by the narratives of only some people in the community. What does it mean to be literally “out of place”? What exists as a “safe space” in a public park for a man may not feel safe at all for me as a black woman. A public bench upon which I can rest in the middle of an afternoon jog may not be so uncontested for a homeless man at night.
As I think about my future, I have to ask who sits at the center of my story. I’m approaching a milestone birthday, and I don’t want to fall victim to someone else’s vision of what a 40 year old woman should be. What does the story look like with me at the center? What happens when I replace an idealized image of perfection, vitality, and beauty with an imperfect but gloriously alive and wonderfully formed vision of who I already am?
As I plan for a new academic year, who do I imagine in my classes? As I engage students in discourse about the history of Christianity, the development of its theology, and the ethical issues of today’s world, who do I place at the center? As the US becomes enmeshed in presidential election politics and ongoing racial tensions, what image to we present as the archetypal American?
I’m so grateful that I was brought to see the woman at the well as a metaphor of intentional displacement. Even in a religion that places a male Savior (Jesus) at its center, there are women who sit with him. Although they confound some of Jesus’ other followers by their presence, they remain meaningful conversation partners and witnesses to their faith.
Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.