For today’s advent offering, I’m returning to the marvellous Rembrandt for another of his stunning portrayals of a biblical narrative (I can’t help it, I think his work is wonderful). The Woman Taken in Adultery depicts the tradition found in the gospel of John 8.3-7, where the scribes and Pharisees try to trick Jesus into condoning Torah disobedience. Presenting Jesus with a woman who has apparently been ‘caught’ in an adulterous scenario, they ask him whether or not she should be stoned. In response, John’s Jesus delivers that well-kent phrase that has since entered the public consciousness of popular culture: ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone’. In other words, don’t be such a hypocrite to condemn someone for their wrongdoings when all the time, your wrongdoings are just as bad, if not worse.
Rembrandt’s depiction of this tradition is absolutely delicious in its use of colour, shade and texture. The muted tones conjure up the cool shadows of the temple, while glimmers of gold around the temple throne as well as the plush velvets of some of the onlookers’ costumes bring a sense of richness and opulence that befits this ostentatious setting – just see how the jewel on the hat of the chap standing nearest us on our right winks brightly in the light (for a lovely enlarged image of this painting, click here). The figure of Jesus seems to loom head and shoulders over the other temple-goers, Rembrandt suggesting, perhaps, Jesus’ superiority (intellectual and moral) over those trying to trick him here. Moreover, while most people stand in the shadows or semi-shadows, Jesus, by contrast, is positively spot-lit as he stares impassively at the woman kneeling before him. Rembrandt’s Jesus is obviously ‘enlightened’ compared to those temple companions and religious leaders who share this scene with him.
Interestingly, the woman too shares some of this spotlight – we can see all too clearly that her head is bowed, her face pained, her eyes red from crying. In her white dress and veil, she looks almost bridal, or perhaps virginal – is Rembrandt hinting here that she is innocent of the charges laid against her? Certainly, according to the gospel tradition, her guilt is taken for granted, as Jesus tells her to ‘go and sin no more’. He may not wish to see her punished, but in his eyes, she’s a wrongdoer nonetheless. Yet, looking at Rembrandt’s portrayal here, we may instead prefer to see her as an innocent victim of a game of one-upmanship played by those religious leaders who wear their power like a peacocky velvet cloak but whose humanity and empathy are lost in the shadows.