MISERY MEETS MERCY: ‘The Woman Taken in Adultery’ by Rembrandt (1644)


MISERY MEETS MERCY: ‘The Woman Taken in Adultery’ by Rembrandt (1644)

 As the nineteen year old protégé sits across the river-bank in the Dutch city of Leiden, he arduously strains to get to the heart of the biblical moment through his art. His first painting was ‘The Stoning of Stephen’ dated 1625. Then on there was no looking back. His unique, uncompromising and innovative style brought the Bible to life.

‘The Bible was real to Rembrandt: a real book about real people…His Jesus is a Jew, and not a particularly handsome one. His apostles are men who fear when they should be brave and sleep when they should stay awake, rough and rustic men, unsophisticated, often slow to catch on, men who show not the slightest hint of sainthood. His patriarchs are as flawed, as conniving, as prone to mistake and subject to weakness as the Bible reports them to have been.’

– John Durham ‘The Biblical Rembrandt ’

Rembrandt called a spade a spade through his fierce and yet gentle strokes of paint. To the modern eye his distortions and abstractions may appear dull and husky but when peered through the window of one’s soul, the painting introduces us to the genius of the ‘painter of painters.’ The mystery and magic in his art can be explored through the painting in consideration.

Titled ‘The Woman Taken in Adultery’, the painting was executed in 1644 and is now housed at the National Gallery in London. The subject draws inspiration from the Gospel of John chapter 8, verses 1 – 11. A woman caught in adultery by a group of ‘pious Pharisees and scribes’ is dragged and casted before Christ. Indeed a clever attempt to kill a ‘mocking bird’ and a scapegoat by a single stone.

The scene is set in a gigantic space at the heart of the Temple. A huge crowd crumbles and climbs up the stairs that leads to the monumental dais where the high priest holds his hieratic court. The supplicants kneel, their hands clasped before the gleaming golden throne. The ‘pious priest’ is separated from the ‘sinners’ by a raised platform and protected by a community of attendants and servants. The depiction stands in sharp contrast to the scene below. 

The high priest and his court

Christ, the Eternal High Priest, is seen standing upon the Temple steps dressed no differently from his followers. He bears no halo nor an unearthly glow. He is depicted barefoot in a rugged brown cloak with uncovered hair. To his right stands the elderly Peter along with a few apostles.  Before them are the dramatic ‘accusers’ garbed in sumptuous drapery and fancy leather boots.  The spokesperson dressed in black (literally to kill) lifts the woman’s veil with a delicate pincer grip and gestures to her ‘impurity’ with his right hand.

Right behind him stands a bearded official coaxing and nudging the speaker with a hand on his shoulder.  A guard garbed in metallic armoury absurdly holds a lappet of the woman’s veil as if tugging along a ‘beast of burden’. Comically the Pharisee next to him donning a pompous hat and a finger to his lips is seen silencing the richly cloaked figure in red before them, perhaps urging him to shush about their voyeuristic venture.


As a shaft of light illuminates the dark, a gorgeous woman clad in white is seen kneeling and weeping before Christ. The eleventh hour of her life has arrived. ‘Stone her to death’ the crowd cries! The Pharisees and scribes slyly seek the Master’s response with tickled eagerness. Christ heeds the lawful claims of justice with stillness and responds but with silence. A silence so stark, it evokes the voice of conscience not only that of the woman but also of her accusers. Rembrandts captures these powerfully fragile moments with mystery and beauty.

As the crowd dissipates like the summer cloud, ‘the two of them alone remained: mercy with misery’ (St. Augustine). How intriguingly beautiful is the depiction of the adulterous woman in the colour white, a symbol of purity for indeed God in His mysterious love enters the fallen human race, embraces the misery of humankind and cloaks it with His mercy. ‘He had no sin but God made Him bear our sin, so that in Him we might share in the holiness of God.’ (2 Corinthians 5: 21)

A few days from now, the roles will reverse as Jesus, the innocent lamb, would be led to slaughter by a furious mob hailing His crucifixion. As a scapegoat, He will be dragged outside the city and put to death brutally. As the women weep silently beneath the old rugged cross, Mercy will triumph over Misery through the Mystery of unconditional Love!

Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday between 9am to 5pm. For a guided tour please contact: 022 – 29271557

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One thought on “MISERY MEETS MERCY: ‘The Woman Taken in Adultery’ by Rembrandt (1644)”

  • I saw this painting yesterday, at York (UK) art gallery, as part of a travelling exhibition on the subject of sin. This was the work that stood out for me – a key moment for the Christian faith, but painted with all of Rembrandt’s humanism.

    I was also struck by the fact that on the left-hand side of the painting, in the background, are some other women (this and other depictions of the same moment have few other women in them). They seem to be in family groups, with children and (presumably) their husbands. Are they being portrayed as ‘virtuous’ women? In any case, they are paying no attention to the drama being played out in the foreground.


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