Probably made as a pair with Christ Blessing the Children
(The Met 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 Met's two 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.
[adapted from Waterman in Ainsworth and Waterman 2013]