Palma il Vecchio, “Christ and the Adulteress,” circa 1525–1528
Palma il Vecchio’s Christ and the Adulteress invites us into the crowd standing with the Pharisees to hear how Jesus will judge the woman caught in adultery. Palma il Vecchio’s depiction invites us into close proximity with Christ, the woman, and three Pharisees, creating an intimacy that inevitably leads one to examine his or her conscience. Christ’s direct gaze at us, the audience, reinforces this proximity and demands a look inward.
The woman in this scene is modeled after Violante, an ambiguous figure in the painter’s life, whom he regarded as a daughter. Her face appears frequently in Palma’s work. Rather than an ashamed, frightened, or penitent face, the face of this woman is somewhat defiant, unconvinced that her accusers have the right to charge her. Her raised eyebrow is evocative: it is as if she has owned up to her adultery, while at the same time remaining skeptical that her accusers are any better than she is. In this one lifted eyebrow, Palma tells us the story of “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone.” While these are Christ’s words in John’s Gospel, here the words echo from the woman’s expression. To be a carrier of God’s Word gives her a vocation and returns to her the dignity that is stripped from her when she is labeled an adulteress and marked for execution.
If the woman’s raised eyebrow communicates the sin and hypocrisy present in this story, Christ’s direct gaze at us is the visual depiction of the words: “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” His gaze is gentle but honest, firm but encouraging. It is a gaze of truth and life, the same gaze perhaps that fell upon the Samaritan woman at the well, or the penitent woman who shed tears on Jesus’ feet. In this image, the gaze rests not on the woman caught in adultery, but rather on us.
Meeting Christ’s gaze is an opportunity for conversion. It is a chance to come into Christ’s truth and life, and to discover once again the dignity and vocation of being God’s beloved.
Commentary is by Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, assistant professor of liturgy, catechesis, and evangelization at Loyola University New Orleans.
In Christ Our Life, Grade 4, children learn about receiving God’s mercy and read an adapted version of John 8:3–11. Elicit from the children words that characterize a person their own age who is considered bad or good. List those words on the board. Say: Suppose you hear that a new boy is coming to your class. Someone who knows him tells you, “He’s not really nice!” What do you expect that boy to be like? (rough, disrespectful, lazy) If you hear that a good boy is coming to your class, what do you expect? (respectfulness, kindness, hard work)
Read the Scripture story. Help the children realize that each person needs to go to Jesus for forgiveness. Say: We’ve seen that the good people in the Gospel story needed Jesus’ mercy and forgiveness as much as the person who was labeled bad. Which of these children we wrote about on the board needs God’s mercy and forgiveness? (both)
Help the children realize that we should ask God’s forgiveness as soon as we have sinned. Ask: What should we do as soon as we know that we have sinned? (Tell God we are sorry. Later, when we celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we can tell the sin to the priest.)