Looking at a Masterpiece: Jesus Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery

This painting (c. 1528) by the Northern Italian artist Lorenzo Lotto (c. 1480-1557) hangs in the Louvre in Paris. It shows the scribes and Pharisees bringing Jesus a woman caught in adultery saying, “Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?” (see Jn 8:3-11). Their clever question was intended to set a trap for Jesus: either condemn the woman or condemn yourself as an opponent of the law of Moses. Jesus of course answers: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

We see the Pharisees here zealous for the law, fanatic busy-bodies. One on the right is pointing upwards as if invoking the authority of the Mosaic law, another in front seemingly counting on his fingers the list of her sins, in a didactic and superior manner toward Christ. There is even a hint of impending violence in the armor of the one behind the woman, as well as in the slightly visible sticks in the background. They are demanding justice.

The point is that they are not so much concerned with the eternal salvation of the adulterous woman as they are filled with what St. Benedict calls “a bitter zeal.” They deceive themselves, thinking they are about God’s business when in fact their zeal is not against their own sins, but against the woman’s, sneering with disdain at this poor sinner, thereby enhancing their own righteousness.

This painting reveals what can lie beneath a veneer of religiosity: people preoccupied with the exteriors of religion, but hollow inside, whose hearts are hard, devoid of charity, zealous for God’s law and yet corrupted by pride. It is a corruption of religion, and it passes through practically every religion, because it passes through every heart. It is a temptation everyone almost imperceptibly succumbs to without God’s grace.1 It is called hypocrisy.

The woman, on the other hand, stands in her naked humiliation. She delights no longer in her sensuous charms, which now heighten her shame. In the original painting a tear is visible on her cheek. A profound contrition, a transformation of her whole personality, is taking place. The artist is able to show this in subtle ways: the manner in which her arms seek to cover her breast, the humble trustful bent of her head toward Christ while weeping, the tear, and the fact that His Light is shining on her and she is in His aura. Grace is at work. She is not so much inwardly moved by the accusing crowd as she is by Christ’s holy presence. She is seeking forgiveness and mercy for her sin.

The amazing thing is that none of these learned scribes and Pharisees seem to have a clue as to who Jesus really is. They do not sense His presence. It is only the one who is humble, who feels the need for mercy, who seeks it and then recognizes Him who is the fount of mercy. At the same time—according to Bl. John Henry Newman—it is only when we know God that we know the measure of sin.Sin’s depravity is exposed when confronted by His infinite goodness and holiness.

The depiction of Christ in the center of this painting (when seen as a whole its dead center is at the level of His Heart) is like an apparition in the sense that He has a sacred aura about Him. The whiteness of the men’s caps behind Him act like rays of light. Though human, He is august and immeasurably above them all in the peace He radiates, in the quiet authoritative gesture of His hand. It is noteworthy that He manifests His mercy toward all the sinners present. His mercy is profound and universal. This is true justice.

The gesture of His hand also clearly indicates that He protects and defends the woman, thereby fundamentally rejecting the chauvinistic one-sided blaming of only the woman for the sin of adultery. He reaffirms her dignity as a person while in no way condoning the sin, saying at the end, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more.”

He takes [the sinner] as he is, and . . . turns his affections into another channel, and extinguishes a carnal love by infusing a heavenly charity.

It is the manifestation of the glory of God in the Face of Jesus Christ . . . it is the beauty of His sanctity, the sweetness of His mercy, the brightness of His heaven, the majesty of His law, the harmony of His providences, the thrilling music of His voice, which is the antagonist of the flesh, and the soul’s champion against the world and the devil.2

1 Pope Francis has often emphasized the danger of this corruption, of our becoming “harsh judges”. Cf. Evangelii Gaudium, p. 25, 48, 50. Also Cf. CS Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book 3 Ch. 8.

2 Bl. John Henry Newman, Discourses to Mixed Congregations, Discourse IV, “Purity and Love”.

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