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Pieter Bruegel the Elder's The Woman Taken in Adultery

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder's The Woman Taken in Adultery Empty Pieter Bruegel the Elder's The Woman Taken in Adultery

Post  eddie Sat Oct 08, 2011 4:30 am

Iain Sinclair on Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Iain Sinclair unravels the mystery encrypted in Bruegel the Elder's monumental panel painting

Iain Sinclair, Friday 30 September 2011 22.55 BST

Pieter Bruegel the Elder's The Woman Taken in Adultery Christ-and-the-Woman-Take-007
A mystery in wood: Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery by Pieter Bruegel the Elder Photograph: ©The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565), a small panel painting, is to be found, in good company, in the Courtauld. The first response of a visitor – we are in a gallery, not a cathedral or a private house – is to consider just how portable this panel actually is. The rectangular shape and the material, old wood, rhymes with those sections of beachcombed plank put to service by enthusiastic amateurs or with some tastefully decorated tea tray. So seductive, so handy, is this late Bruegel, that in February 1982 it was lifted from the wall by thieves who prided themselves on their superior taste. The picture was not recovered for 10 years, the assumption being that fame precluded a sale and that it was hidden away as collateral for a complex drug deal. There is another explanation that I prefer, that the taker-without-consent was mesmerised by the drama of an episode from the Gospel of St John, rendered with such certainty of touch, such restricted tonality, and on a scale as intimate as the page of an illustrated book. Ten years was the proper length of time for contemplation of Bruegel's enigmatic human parable.

The painting was not to be given up lightly. It did not pass to one of the Flemish craftsman's usual patrons; not to some comfortable Brussels merchant, nor to Bruegel's friend the mapmaker Abraham Ortelius. It was never sold but was willed to the painter's son Jan Brueghel the Elder. The son, known as Velvet Brueghel, is also to be found in the Courtauld, part of a much grander oil, a sweet-natured family group by Rubens.

Family is no part of Woman Taken in Adultery. A solitary female, neck twisted in looking down, modest, dignified in all the surrounding male fuss, betrays her tension through a superstitious double-crossing of stretched fingers. She stands at the centre of the composition. At her back, potential assassins gather, executioners pressing forward. The Christ figure, on his knees, stares at the ground, the dust in which his finger writes. Raised, as if on a low stage, are his tormentors, the Pharisees with their riddling challenge. "Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?"

Bruegel, whose earliest documented work was as a journeyman covering the outer wings of a triptych by Peeter Baltens in the cathedral of St Roubout, employs for this panel, painted four years before his death, the same grisaille technique. That is what gives the packed composition, with its recessive arrangement of bodies, frozen spectral figures disappearing into the universal darkness, its heart-stopping power: discriminations of grey on grey, flesh like marble, robes carved into rock, stiff fingers as vulnerable as angels on tombstones. The whole arrangement with its inevitable blocking hints at a hybrid form, both antique and contemporary: theatre, sculpture, storyboard, film. The tight-packed chorus, caught, turned, challenged by Christ's unexpected and unreadable response to the question set to trap him, becomes a stoic version of those annoying but compulsive white-face performance artists who play at being living statuary.

Can this woman, hands raised over her high-waisted costume, like the respectable bride in Jan van Eyck's The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami, have been exposed in the heat of adulterous coupling? And where is her partner, the guilty man? Movement, life, sweat: they have been leached out. Adultery is a crime against property, against woman as property. Elizabeth I, on the throne of England when Bruegel painted his panel, saw her mother, Anne Boleyn, executed for the crime of adultery. Across the Strand from Somerset House is the High Court of Justice, where covert acts are described and debated in language more forensic than Bruegel's grisaille. Trial by tabloid, the shredding of reputation by a thousand phone hacks, is the contemporary equivalent of the righteous mob with rocks in their hands.

Bruegel suggests a chart of emotions as intricate as the map-making of Ortelius. The sloped back of the kneeling Christ echoes the shape of a cliff or mountain range. The texture of the robes of the Pharisees, all fissures and geological creases, runs straight into this panel's immediate neighbour: a Bruegel exterior, Landscape with the Flight into Egypt. At the feet of the stooped Pharisee is a pebble the size of an egg. And then another, even smaller. The tools of execution are countered by the words Christ traces with his finger in the dust: "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her." So this act of writing, making the ground into a page, overwhelms the rhetorical snares of speech, the ugly cut and thrust of political interrogation. The enchanted mob, literally petrified, will move again. The stick divided by the Pharisee's gesturing hands becomes a wand. And the stage, as we remember from John, empties. The stone-throwers walk away, one by one, according to age. Until the kneeling Christ and the standing woman remain, in an awkward reversal of their established sexual status. He tells her to go, to sin no more, to pass from this narrative, and out of our knowledge. A mystery encrypted in one small panel of painted wood now hanging in a London gallery.

© 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.

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