Artibus et Historiae no. 56 (XXVIII)

2007, ISSN 0391-9064

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18

Buy article pdf

BEVERLY LOUISE BROWN - Corroborative Detail: Titian's Christ and the Adulteress

Both Titian's authorship and the subject of the painting in Glasgow have been debated for many years. Although it is now generally accepted that it represents Christ and the Adulteress, there are those who still favor the Old Testament story of Susanna and Daniel. What has gone virtually unnoticed is the all'antica portrait medallion of an emperor embedded in the wall above Christ's head, which the Roman soldier seen from behind points towards with his concealed left arm. To judge from the lack of attention that the medallion has received, one might assume that it is just a trivial detail used as a bit of decorative flourish. However, a close examination of this small coin-like profile helps to clarify some of the questions concerning the picture's subject and its place within early sixteenth-century Venetian painting. The confusion over the painting's subject can be partly understood by the pairing of the two Biblical stories, which were read together on the third Saturday in Lent. Both were concerned with the true interpretation of Judaic law, but this classical Roman detail alone should make it clear that the story is not set in the Old Testament. In the New Testament story the Pharisees and the scribes set a trap for Christ by asking him to choose between sanctioning the mandatory death penalty for adultery specified by Mosaic law and restrictions imposed on him by Roman law, which gave the ruling prefect exclusive jurisdiction over capital cases. But Christ avoided the trap by not choosing either and thus opened the path towards a new and more compassionate Christian law. The solider would seem to be equating Christ's merciful judgement with the virtuous enactment of the law by the Roman emperor. Of all the early Roman emperors the one most commonly associated with virtù was Augustus, who occupied a special position in popular memory as the harbinger of peace, prosperity and justice. The medallion in Titian's picture bears more than just a superficial resemblance to images of Augustus found on Roman coins. By the mid-fifteenth century it was not uncommon to find antique numismatic imagery included in religious paintings, manuscripts, mosaics and tomb sculptural. How these images were interpreted in cases such as the Mascoli Chapel in San Marco or Vincenzo Foppo's Crucifixion, where they were set within a triumphal arch, is slightly different from Titian's Christ and the Adulteress where the medallion is isolated on a wall. Titian would have been well acquainted with ancient sculpture displayed by modern Venetians in a similar fashion. He also must have been aware that by extracting the medallion profile from a purely decorative context, he could increase its potential as a part of a visual exegesis. In this respect its isolation recalls a similar piece of all'antica sculpture in Giovanni Bellini's Saint Terentius. Bellini's portrait bust is placed above an inscription which identifies it as Augustus, whose presence was meant as a reminder of the practices of good government established under his reign. Although the emperor in Titian's Adulteress is not identified, it is argued that like Bellini, he chose to use Augustus as a moral paradigm. A connection is made between Christ’s judgement of mercy and forgiveness and the exemplary reign of Augustus. The soldier who points to the medallion establishes a parallel between the secular and religious realms as well as the antique and Christian. The inherent drama of the story lies in the balance between Christ in not condoning adultery and his mercy in forgiving the woman's sin. Although we do not know who commissioned Titian's painting or how it was originally displayed, its scale and explicit judicial character strongly suggests that it was commissioned for a civic space to serve as an exemplum virtutis for councillors and judges.

Editor-in-chief Advisory Committee
Latest issue
All issues
Bibliotheca Artibus et Historiae
Our authors
Advertising in Artibus et Historiae
How to buy
Buy articles in PDF