The best part about getting a membership to the Musée du Louvre is that I can visit the famous museum as often as I please. I don’t have to feel rushed, like I need to ingest all of that culture in one, greedy bite. I can spend an afternoon browsing the Egyptian artifacts and another meandering through the Roman sculptures. I can revisit my favorite Greek pottery or Moroccan tiles. And, I don’t have to feel guilty for spending a half an hour admiring a single Italian painting either.
It’s fate that I even found the painting at all, hidden as it is in a corner behind the partition that houses the revered Mono Lisa. On principle, I slipped by the jungle of selfie-sticks and craned necks (I’ve got a membership! I can see the Mona Lisa anytime I want!) and moseyed over to the adjacent wall. And there it was, the large but unassuming oil painting that peaked my interest.
The plaque informed me that this work, The Woman Taken in Adultery, was finished in 1529 by Italian artist Lorenzo Lotto. I had never heard of Lotto, but I knew the story of Jesus and the adulterous women well.
Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives, but early the next morning he was back again at the Temple. A crowd soon gathered, and he sat down and taught them. As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd.
“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?”
They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.
When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”
“No, Lord,” she said.
And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”
John 8:1-11 (NLT)
I was so moved by it – the colors and the depth and the varied expressions on the faces in the crowd – and I couldn’t help but to play out the story in my head.
The soldier restrains the woman by her long hair, his club drawn and ready to strike her like an ox if she struggles. Behind the soldier, the man in black scowls, his disgust for the promiscuous woman piercing and condemning. A few men in the background simply gawk and jeer. They call her a whore and laugh and spit. This is entertainment, a public spectacle. The bald man with the orange robes counts on his fingers. Is he listing all of the counts against the woman, all of the ways that she had sinned? Or, is he defending himself, listing for Christ all of the righteous things that he had done? Either way, he is desperate for justice to be served.
And the woman openly weeps. She weeps for her mistakes and her shame, her humiliation and her imminent judgement.
But Jesus, after writing in the dust, raises his hand to silence the angry crowd. And when he speaks, the people listen. “But let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone.”
The scriptures say that, when the Pharisees were stung with Jesus’ words, the oldest began to slip away first. I’d like to think that the old man on the far left of the canvas, the one with the gray beard and hair, was one of the first of them to leave – realizing that after a lifetime of his own shortcomings and mistakes, he too was not innocent in the eyes of God. Or perhaps it was the man in orange, convicted (as only Christ can convict) with his self-righteousness and his need to condemn others to prove his own worthiness against the law.
Eventually the woman’s accusers were all gone, and in my mind’s eye I can see Jesus and the bewildered, guilty-but-spared woman alone on a white canvas. And she is bathed in the light of the powerful, saving, life-giving grace that compels her towards holiness for the rest of her days.
“Go and sin no more.”
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