This small panel painting of the Woman Taken in Adultery, as the theme of the Gospel reading for the 5th Sunday, is sometimes known, is very remarkable in the oeuvre of Rembrandt for the exquisite quality of the detailed painting and dramatic lighting in the foreground of the main subject, in contrast to the dim, monochromatic, heavily impastoed and indistinct background scene of the Temple, at a time in the mid 1640’s when he had already been developing a more evenly broad handled and painterly style for 10 or more years. Many contemporary paintings by Rembrandt such as the Adoration of the Shepherds, of 1646 show this development
Many artists painted this subject during the 16th and 17th century, not just in the Protestant countries in the North but also in Italy and elsewhere. Artists treated different moments in the encounter. By far the most common was to show Christ writing on the ground, as in Poussin’s version in the Louvre of 1653 and in Bruegel’s grisaille painting in the Courtauld, another was the moment when the scene changes as the accusers move away. Other artists, such as Lotto show the aggression of the crowd being focussed on Jesus, so that the scene becomes a precursor of the Passion. This last theme of heightened tension and aggression directed at Jesus is definitely present in the Gospel as a whole and in this passage. It may be partly why the 5th Sunday in Lent in the three year cycle shifts to John.
However, the Gospel passage is also focussed on the Lenten theme of repentance, and Rembrandt, who has shifted the action to an earlier point-just after the woman is brought to Jesus in danger of her life- stays close to this theme. The quality of the painting in the foreground is detailed and exquisite, using rich saturated colours to build up the play of light on fabrics and jewellry through several glazes. The woman is centrally placed and bathed in natural light which falls diagonally from behind Jesus, as if mediated by him, illuminating her and the steps in front. We are drawn into this scene of bathos.
In the background, to the left is smaller group completely apart, with backs turned, and then behind there is a raised area with Rembrandt’s vision of the Temple of Jesus’ time as a gloomy and imposing candlelit space. There, action is also taking place, also quite apart, which echoes indistinctly the action of the foreground. However, with the axis of the Temple being oblique and with the heavily impastoed and monochrome palette, it remains unclear.
It is believed that Rembrandt studied the Biblical accounts of the Temple as well as those of Josephus for his depiction. He may also have been influenced by the then newly-constructed Sephardic Synagogue in Amsterdam, which even today, when candlelit seems remarkably similar to the effect of his interior. He may also have adapted contemporary ark designs for the synagogue such as in the Jewish museum, London and used these to depict the Temple. The structure behind the High priest also seems like a Torah breastplate, although different in scale.
It is possible that Rembrandt’s aim is simply to contrast grace with the law in this painting and to show that what is happening in the background is about to be obscured or replaced by the light of the Gospel. However, it may be rather that Rembrandt is showing that what is important is conversion and transformation through the radiant and compassionate love of God, here mediated by Christ. The detail of the foreground highlights the simplicity of Christ’s brown garb and the purity of the light as it falls from above him onto the woman and the steps, in contrast to the elaborate impasto of the background scene. In its message, the painting looks forward to the Prodigal Son in the Hermitage of many years later.
I am indebted to Michael Podro’s observations in the article ‘Rembrandt’s Woman Taken in Adultery’ in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 50, (1987), pp. 245-252 available for online reading at JSTOR,. He highlights the significance of the way Rembrandt has differently painted the foreground and background scenes, and suggests an additional possible link to the Calvinist and Arminian theological disputes in Amsterdam at the time.