Woman taken in adultery

The evangelist John tells us that the scribes and Pharisees brought before Jesus a woman “taken in adultery” and ask him what should be done with her. Should they follow Moses and the Old Law and condemn her to death by stoning? Or should they disregard the Law and take a different course? The men are not interested in justice but in catching Jesus in unlawful views and behaviors. The Gospel is clear on this point: “And this they said tempting him, that they might accuse him.” If Jesus answers no, he contradicts Moses and thus is no prophet. If he answers yes, then he goes against Roman law and risks being punished by execution. Jesus does not immediately respond to the men but instead begins to write upon the ground with his finger. Some think that the Lord was writing out the sins of the crowd. Then, standing, he says to them: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” Jesus’ answer reveals how the New Law transcends and completes the Old. The Son of Man has not come to condemn but to forgive. One by one the woman’s accusers silently depart. As no man condemns her, neither does Jesus. The scribes and Pharisees’ act of delivery the woman reveals their hypocrisy. How else could they claim that she was “even now taken in adultery” unless one of them was with her?
The Gospel passage of the woman taken in adultery, the common label for the subject, has been popular in the visual arts since the late Middle Ages, most likely because of its profound message of forgiveness. Artists have responded to the passage variously. The designer of the window at St. John’s elaborated on the Gospel passage, creating an image full of narrative detail and emotion. Rather than depict the woman standing amongst the men, as described in the Bible, the artist isolated her in the foreground, sitting alone. Her long flowing hair and low-cut dress establish her wantonness. On her right an old man and woman hold stones in their hands and the folds of their garments. The artist omitted figures not necessary to the main event, such as Jesus’ followers, who were listening to him when the woman and her accusers appeared on the scene. The quotation at the top of the window states, “He that is without sin among you let him first cast a stone at her” and is continued in the cartouche at the bottom, “Neither will I condemn thee. Go and now sin no more.”
The artist’s unusual response to the Gospel passage has the effect of promoting certain themes over others. A main message of the window is repentance, a concept not directly touched upon in the Biblical passage. In the Gospel Jesus simply tells the woman to go and sin no more. The passage ends before we learn of the woman’s response, though we assume that her encounter with the living Christ has converted her, as it has many before and after her. In the window however we see the woman’s reaction to Jesus’ request: she sits on the steps with her hands clasped together as if in prayer and her face full of contrition. Her gesture and countenance assure us that she is sorry for her sin and will commit it no longer. A second theme is mercy. The individuals who surround Jesus and the woman clearly want to condemn her to death: the man and woman on the left appear eager to hurl the stones they carry. The men on the right who delivered the woman certainly don’t care for her life, as they were using her to trap the Lord. Only Jesus forgives her: he does not condone the sin but pardons the sinner. The message is clear: to be a follower of Christ is to be able to forgive others as Jesus forgives them. A third theme is chastity. Rather than see the positive side of a chaste lifestyle, we see the negative side: we are shown what is to be avoided. Nonetheless we understand that to walk in the path of Jesus we must seek purity. Another theme is the juxtaposition of the Old Law and New embodied in the figures of the Pharisees and Jesus, respectively. The Old Law is the foundation for the vocation of man, bringing the chosen people into relationship with God and how to relate to others, which includes a chaste life and a forgiving heart. The New Law, which is the grace of the Holy Spirit, that makes grace visible through the sacraments to strengthen us to practice chastity and forgiveness.  The sacraments are the heart of the life of all Catholics and celebrated with devotion by the community at St. John’s Chapel.