Christ and the Adulteress

Lucas Cranach the Younger and Workshop (German, Wittenberg 1515–1586 Wittenberg)

ca. 1545–50
Oil on wood
6 1/4 x 8 1/2 in. (15.9 x 21.6 cm)
Credit Line:
The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection, 1982
Accession Number:
  • Gallery Label

    This small picture illustrates the biblical passage in which a woman accused of adultery—an offense punishable by death in Mosaic law—is brought before Christ. He responds to her accusers with the words written across the top of the painting: "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her" (John 8:7). Among the many variants of the subject that were made in Cranach’s workshop, this panel is unusual because it most likely formed a pair with Christ Blessing the Children, displayed to the left.

  • Catalogue Entry

    Probably made as a pair with Christ Blessing the Children (MMA 1982.60.36), this panel illustrates the biblical passage (John 8:2–11) where a woman accused of adultery, an offense punishable by death in Mosaic law, is brought before Christ in the temple at Jerusalem; he responds to her accusers with the words written across the top of the painting: "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her."

    This work follows a compositional standard established for the subject by about 1520, the approximate date of the earliest painted version by Cranach (Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich; on loan to the Fränkische Galerie, Kronach). In horizontal format, the figures are arranged, frieze-like, across a black background without indication of the temple setting; Christ is at center, holding the arm of the woman, whose accusers are densely grouped to the left and right. This type of composition may reflect an interest in northern Italian art, where horizontal pictures with half-length figures were common in the early sixteenth century, or Cranach may have arrived at the format independently.

    Cranach's Christ and the Adulteress pictures are innovative in German art not only for their frequent use of a possibly Venetian-inspired format and composition, but also for the significant detail of Christ holding the woman's arm, which underscores his role as her protector. The two men behind the adulteress, one balding and the other with a long brown beard, reappear in the Museum's Christ Blessing the Children and may be Saints Peter and Paul.

    The Museum's Christ and the Adulteress and Christ Blessing the Children are unusual among the many variants of these subjects made in Cranach's workshop because of their small size and the likelihood that they were meant as a pair. Although the earliest known provenance of the two panels indicates separate ownership, the remarkably close correspondence in size and appearance and the existence of a pair of old copies in the Schlossmuseum, Gotha, is strong evidence that they were made as pendants. The two paintings are united by the theme of the free dispensation of divine grace, a central tenet of Lutheranism. Their very small size suggests that they were meant for a private setting.

    Bauman (1984) correctly dated the pictures to the mid-1540s or later and noted the difficulty of distinguishing the hands of Cranach the Elder and Cranach the Younger at this stage; however, affinities with large works from the second half of the 1540s associated with Cranach the Younger make it reasonable to say that the two MMA pictures date between 1545 and 1550 and are closer in manner to Cranach the Younger than to his father, despite the widespread collaboration and stylistic cross-pollination that must have taken place in the workshop at the time.

    [2011; adapted from Waterman 2013]

  • Signatures, Inscriptions, and Markings

    Inscription: Signed (upper right) with winged serpent (wings folded?); inscribed (top): WER VNTER EVCH ON SVNDE IST. DER WERFFE DEN ERSTEN STEIN AVFF SIE. ~IOH~VIII~ (He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her [John 8:7].)

  • Provenance

    D. Schevitch, Paris (until 1906; his sale, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, April 4–7, 1906, no. 3, as by Cranach, for Fr 1,350 to Drey); ?[A. S. Drey, Paris and Munich, from 1906]; Gustav von Gerhardt, Budapest (until 1911; his estate sale, Lepke's, Berlin, November 10, 1911, no. 81, as by Lucas Cranach the Younger, bought in; his estate, from 1911); sale, American Art Association, New York, February 2–3, 1928, no. 108, "To be sold to close an Estate," for $500; [R. Ederheimer, New York, until 1936]; Henry Schniewind, New York (from 1936); Mrs. Arthur Corwin, Greenwich, Conn. (by 1945–55; sold to Newhouse); [Newhouse Galleries, New York, 1955; sold to Linsky]; Mr. and Mrs. Jack Linsky, New York (1955–his d. 1980); Mrs. Jack Linsky, New York (1980–82)

  • Exhibition History

    Cambridge, Mass. Germanic Museum. "German Paintings of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries," June 5–September 30, 1936, no. 8 (as by Lucas Cranach the Elder, lent by Mr. Henry Schniewind).

    New York. Duveen. "Cranach Loan Exhibition," May 1–31, 1960, no. 16 (lent by Mr. and Mrs. Jack Linsky).

  • References

    Charles L. Kuhn. A Catalogue of German Paintings of the Middle Ages and Renaissance in American Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1936, p. 36, no. 82, p. 91, no. 417, pl. XVIII, as by Lucas Cranach the Elder, in the collection of Henry Schniewind, New York; dates it about 1520, reading the wings of the dragon emblem as extended; calls it the companion to "Christ Blessing the Children" (MMA 1982.60.36); includes the Schniewind picture and the work sold in New York in 1928 [see Ex collections] separately, while noting that they may be the same painting.

    Franziska Schmid in Reallexikon zur Deutschen Kunstgeschichte. 4, Stuttgart, 1958, col. 798, mentions it as an example of the representation of Christ and the adulteress, noting that the wide, knee-length format is new, but that Cranach's circle also painted a full-length version of the subject.

    Guy Bauman in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Notable Acquisitions, 1983–1984. New York, 1984, pp. 57–58, ill., states that these two panels exemplify the influence of the Lutheran Reformation on Cranach's imagery.

    Guy C. Bauman in The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1984, pp. 101–4, no. 36, ill. (color), states that the agreement in style and format indicates that the two MMA panels must have been conceived together and dates them to the mid-1640s, noting that it is especially difficult to distinguish between the work of Lucas Cranach the Elder and the Younger in paintings of this period; mentions that Lucas the Younger's painting "Saint John the Baptist Preaching" (Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig), dated 1549, is very close in style to the two MMA panels; mistakenly identifies the two MMA pictures with two copies after them in Gotha [see Notes]; states that at least sixteen versions of this subject by Cranach and his workshop survive; notes that the compositions of both MMA panels are unique among the surviving versions.

    Peter Klein. Letter to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. April 3, 2006, identifies the wood of the panel as beech, set into a mahogany panel.

    Ewa Wilkojc. "Christ Blessing the Children" by Lucas Cranach the Elder in the Collection of the Wawel Royal Castle: Study and Conservation. Kraków, 2012.

  • Notes

    This picture and its companion ("Christ Blessing the Children," MMA 1982.60.36) were confused by Bauman (1984) with two works in nineteenth-century catalogues of the Herzogliches Museum, Gotha (1858, nos. 102–3; 1890, nos. 364–65), but those works remain in the Schlossmuseum Gotha (inv. nos. SG6, SG11) and are considered copies after the MMA pictures.

    Friedländer and Rosenberg ("The Paintings of Lucas Cranach," rev. ed., Ithaca, N.Y., 1978) list fifteen versions of this subject by Cranach and his workshop (nos. 129, 129A–B, 216, 216A–B, 364, 364A–G, 365), but include neither the MMA nor the Gotha panels.

  • See also
    In the Museum
    Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History