The theme of Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery is an iconic subject in Cranach’s oeuvre. There exist at least seventeen surviving versions of this composition by Lucas Cranach the Elder, his son and their workshop. Four versions are considered by Max J. Friedländer and Jakob Rosenberg to be autograph works by Lucas Cranach the Elder, and another seven listed as variants executed after 1537 by his workshop, or his son, Lucas Cranach the Younger (M.J. Friedländer, J. Rosenberg, The Paintings of Lucas Cranach, London, 1978, pp. 95, 111-2, 141-2, nos. 129, 216 and 364-5). The Cranach Digital Archives records a further six versions, including this picture. The earliest example was painted by the Elder and is dated to circa 1520 (Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen; on loan to the Fränkische Galerie, Kronach). A consummate storyteller, Cranach may have been influenced by Venetian models when devising this formula, for example Marco Marziale’s treatment of same subject, painted around 1505 (Maastricht, Bonnefantenmuseum), from which he may have borrowed the horizontal format with numerous figures crowded around the central figure of Christ against a black background (M. Ainsworth, German Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1350-1600, New York, 2013, p. 100).
The Biblical episode of Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, as recounted in the Gospel of Saint John (8:2-11), tells of the fate of a woman who, accused of adultery (a crime punishable by public stoning according to Old Testament law), was brought to Christ for judgment. The Pharisees were hoping that through his verdict, Christ would contradict the law, thereby incriminating himself. Instead, Christ simply responded: ‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her’ – the words inscribed in German at the top of this panel – thus exposing the hypocrisy of her accusers, who recoil in shock and horror.
In this highly animated composition, accommodating no less than sixteen figures in a frieze-like arrangement set against a black background, which throws them into the viewer’s space, the artist conveys the confusion that ensued Christ’s judgment. Emphatic gestures highlight the narrative: the woman’s plight is alluded to by the grotesque soldier in the left foreground, who is poised to strike her; while Christ’s seizing of the adulteress’ wrist symbolises His protection of her (G. Bauman, The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1984, p. 101).
The popularity of this iconography has been associated with Luther’s 1531 Sermon on John 8 in which he preached: ‘[S]ee how sweet É the grace of God is, the grace of which is offered to us in the Gospel. This is the absolution which the adulteress received here from the Lord Christ’ (Ainsworth, op. cit., p. 101). For Luther the episode illustrated the free dispensation of grace, and salvation from God, a central premise of Reformation thinking. The didactic treatment of the theme by Cranach exhorts the viewer to recognise his own sin, and to leave judgment to God. The subject also illustrates a teaching from the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Judge not, that ye not be judged’ (Matthew 7:1), another departure fundamental to Lutheran doctrine.
We are grateful to Dr. Dieter Koepplin and Dr. Werner Schade for independently confirming the attribution to Lucas Cranach the Younger, on the basis of photographs. Dr. Schade also suggests that there is a degree of workshop participation. While loosely deriving from the Elder’s prototype, the face of the grotesque soldier, which is confidently drawn, does not feature in the other versions of the subject, and would appear to be the Younger’s own invention. His wretched appearance may testify to the artist’s knowledge of famous grotesques in art both North – with Quentin Massys’s Ugly Duchess (London, National Gallery) – and South – with Leonardo da Vinci’s celebrated drawings – of the Alps. Beyond the subject’s serious theological content, the artist has introduced playfulness and spontaneity, in his distinctive stylised and elegant manner, while also taking the opportunity to depict one of his trademark female beauties in the alluring figure of the adulteress.