The Scribes and Pharisees (experts in religious law) brought to Christ a young woman caught having sex outside marriage (John 8: 1–11). They asked him whether she should be stoned to death in accordance with the laws of Moses. Jesus, seeming not to hear them, stooped down and wrote on the ground. They kept asking him and Jesus replied: ‘He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her.’
The Scribes and Pharisees left. When Jesus asked the woman whether any man had condemned her, she said no. He replied that neither did he and told her to go and sin no more.
The scene is set in front of the Temple in Jerusalem, and Christ’s words are written in Hebrew on the steps. One of the roundels decorating the building shows Moses and the Ten Commandments, which include the seventh commandment against adultery. The temple is presented as a fortress of the Old Law, but Christ stands outside it, representing the New Law.
The Gospel of John tells how the Scribes and Pharisees (experts in religious law) brought to Christ a young woman caught committing adultery (having sex outside marriage). They asked him whether the woman should be stoned to death for her crime, in accordance with the laws of Moses, hoping to trick Christ into contradicting those laws.
At first Jesus seemed not to hear them. Then he stooped down and wrote with his finger on the ground. They kept asking him and Jesus replied: ‘He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her.’ Then he bent down and wrote on the ground again. Slowly, one by one, the Scribes and Pharisees left, troubled by their own consciences. Finally Jesus was alone with the woman. When he asked her whether any man had condemned her, she said no. He replied that neither did he and told her to go and sin no more (John 8: 1–11).
Mazzolino’s painting is set outside the Temple of Jerusalem. Christ addresses the woman’s two principal accusers, who stand either side of her. Her wrists are bound and her eyes are downcast. She is surrounded by lots of men with grotesque faces – something Mazzolino often included in his pictures – who appear to be muttering to one another. On the left, a man in spectacles kneels down to examine the Hebrew words Christ has written on the temple steps. The first part reads, ‘the man among you who has no sin’ (John 8: 7); the remainder doesn‘t make any sense but was probably meant to continue the Bible quotation. The two younger men seated on the step appear to discuss this message.
In the galleries of the temple above, men peer down at the scene below. In the centre, one imposing seated figure seems to give instructions to the others, perhaps on how best to trap Christ. The walls are decorated with two large circular bronze reliefs: one shows Moses delivering the Tablets of the Law to the Israelites, reminding us of the seventh commandment against adultery, while the other contains an unidentified scene also involving Moses. The long rectangular relief panel above the portico includes battling figures, many on horseback, in the style of ancient Roman sarcophagi but here shown against a background painted in shell gold to represent gold mosaic. Mazzolino has depicted the temple as a fortress of Old Testament beliefs. Christ, representing the New Law, is outside the temple and the ’doctors' and the Old Law are inside. The theme is central to the Gospel story.
The date 15XXII, written in shell gold on the step in the bottom right corner, is still visible although the final digit has now rubbed off. This painting is very similar to Mazzolino’s Christ disputing with the Doctors in the Temple in style and theme, both relating to Moses and the Ten Commandments. The sophistication of Mazzolino’s paintings must have appealed to his educated clients, who included several members of the Este court in Ferrara. They would have appreciated the prominence Mazzolino gave to reliefs inspired by Roman sarcophagi and regarded the Hebrew as an element that underscored the authenticity of his religious paintings.
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