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The Woman taken in Adultery

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591-1666), known as Guercino or 'squint-eyed' after he developed a squint as a result of a childhood accident, was largely self-taught and became the leading painter in Bologna from the 1640s. The Woman taken in Adultery, with its bold, fluid brushwork, powerful chiaroscuro and inventive composition, is characteristic of the artist’s early work before he travelled to Rome in 1621 and came under the more classicising influence of Guido Reni (1575-1642).

The story of the adulteress is recorded in Saint John’s Gospel and describes how a woman was saved from being stoned to death by Christ's words: ‘Whichever of you is free from sin shall cast the first stone at her.’ Guercino as a master storyteller captures this pivotal moment just as Christ is about to speak, not through overt or emphatic expression, but through the subtle drama created by an interchange of glances and hand gestures. The hands themselves carry the thrust of the story; the juxtaposition of the soldier’s tight fist against the adulteress’s own pale hands folded in submission illustrates with poetic directness her extreme vulnerability, while the confused mesh of fingers held up by the Pharisee are dismissed by the open and clear indication of Jesus’s single pointing finger.

Guercino’s early work is celebrated today for such visual understatement, an approach to storytelling which rather than creating distance between his images and his viewers with an idealised scene, draws them into the composition by depicting what appears to be a fleeting, unposed moment. The artist here expresses great empathy with the adulteress and emphasises above all her humanity. Although she and her captors are pushed up against the picture plane to evoke the claustrophobia of the moment, her bent head casts her eyes in shadow, granting her a sense of quiet dignity. 

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Currently on display

Gallery 4
98.2 x 122.7 cm
Oil on canvas
Bourgeois Bequest, 1811
Accession number