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Thirsty sailors

· The symbolism of water in sacred texts ·

A conference in Genoa analyses the relationship between this primordial element with the sacred and with art

During the Festival dell’acqua taking place in Genoa, 9 September, at the Palazzo Ducale, l’Associazione Sant’Anselmo with its project of Imago Veritatis is organizing the meeting “Water and sacred figures” which includes a conference with images take by Timothy Verdon (“The thirst for truth in art”) and one by Quirino Principe (“Music and the voice of God”), with piano preformances by Marino Nahon. Below we are publishing excerpts from the introduction.

In the Bible, the book common to three monotheistic religions, in the story of creation we find a “cosmic” water that determines the origin of life: God says: “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters” (Gen 1:6). And in Psalm 29 it says: “The Lord sits enthroned over the flood”, the throne of God floats on the waters, a metaphor of his Power. God can divide or dry up the water at will, like he did in the Flood (“The waters prevailed upon the earth a hundred and fifty days” Gen 7:24), or divided them, destroying Pharaoh, (“the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left” Ex 14:22). that is the same authority that Christ exercises in the Gospel, by which he walks on the water and calms the Sea of Galilee. The shipwreck and the storm are governed by God, who saves Noah's Ark, preserves Jonah in the whale, carries the boat with the Apostle Paul and his companions to the island of Malta. The boat: symbol of the Synagogue and the Church.

In sacred texts, water is at the same time an indispensable element of material life and a symbol of life eternal, as is recited in Proverbs: “Like cold water to a thirsty soul” (25:25). This is an invocation well understood in the climate of Palestine, land of shepherds and sparse of rain.

In Exodus, a small section of chapter 19 serves as an introduction to the long journey of forty days that leads Israel to Mount Sinai. Immediately after the crossing of the Red Sea, the liberation from slavery, the first difficulty they encounter is thirst: they lack water and when it does come, it is brackish: “they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah. And the people murmured against Moses, saying, 'What shall we drink?' And he cried to the Lord; and the Lord showed him a tree, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet” (Ex 15:23-25). But what interests us is the relevance of the editor's comment: “There the Lord made for them a statute and an ordinance and there he proved them” (ibid.).

In biblical narratives, the figurative meaning of water in the land of Israel is veiled: the reservoir of fresh water in the Sea of Galilee or Tiberias; the Jordan river and the Dead Sea; springs, wells, cisterns which are the backdrop of so many well known stories, like that of Jacob and Jesus' epiphany to the Samaritan woman. Wells were scarce and the place where people met and became acquainted. And therefore some meetings between men and women take place at wells, like Jacob and Rachel. Coming to the well from a faraway land represents the foreigner who by receiving water and hospitality establishes a new familial bond.

Water is the element of purification and of worship, both in the Jewish and the Christian code. In Baptism immersion in water adds the passage of death to life to the meaning of the purification.

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