'The Woman Taken in Adultery'

Sebastiano Ricci’s ‘Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery,’ ca. 1724-1728, an oil-on-canvas painting bought by Krannert Art Museum through the Ellnora D. Krannert Fund Museum.

As I’ve said before on these pages, I rely on works of art to provide unexpected perspectives on current events.

Like many of you, I’ve been thinking about new laws triggered by the overturn of Roe v. Wade and how many are punitive toward women.

In this light, I looked anew at a painting long on view at Krannert Art Museum — Sebastiano Ricci’s “Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery.”

Ricci adapted the story from the Gospel of John 8:3-11. Pharisees bring a woman accused of adultery to Christ, attempting to trick him into disobeying the Old Testament law that she be stoned. Christ ignored them, knelt and began writing on the ground.

After they interrupted him several times, he looked up to say: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”

The Pharisees gradually disperse, their consciences struck and unable to retort, and Christ eventually sends the woman away with an admonition not to sin again.

The subject was popular in early modern Europe, partly because magnanimity was highly valued, celebrated in art, literature and music.

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However, many artists used the story to emphasize the woman’s guilt, her head often hanging down in shame or kneeling in supplication.

Others went in more exploitative directions, with the woman bare-breasted, gaped at by men in a public space.

I’ve long been struck by Ricci’s alternative interpretation. In this painting, the woman stands with dignity, her head at the same height as the Pharisees’, leaning forward to look intently at Christ. Ricci’s Pharisees are taken aback, suddenly aware of their sanctimony and the gendered inequity of their actions.

We always need to be careful about projecting today’s values onto a painting from the 1700s.

Nonetheless, Ricci’s resistance to more conventional approaches to the subject stands out.

I appreciate his sensitivity to topics all too familiar today: a sanctimonious public pile-on, different standards applied to women, a plea for forgiveness and self-reflection.

The painting suggests ways to step back from harsh public judgment, focus on improving the future and rely on a more personal, internal assessment of good.

Jon L. Seydl is director of Krannert Art Museum in Champaign.

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