Christ and the Adulteress
(Bernardo Cavallino)


This painting was overlooked by the modern literature ever since it was last exhibited in Naples in 1938. Though correctly attributed to Bernardo Cavallino in that exhibition covering the field of Neapolitan paintings in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries the painting was not in fact illustrated in the catalogue and in consequence is not recorded either in the monographic exhibition in Cleveland in 1984 or Nicola Spinosa’s recent catalogue raisonné.

The subject of Christ and the woman taken in adultery was popular in the 16th century, particularly in Northern Italy, and slightly less so in the 17th century.  This subject, known as the Pericope Adulterae, chosen here by Bernardo Cavallino, appears in the Gospel according to St. John (7:53-8:11). In this episode, after Jesus has sat down in the temple to teach the people, having spent the previous night on the Mount of Olives, a group of scribes and Pharisees confronted him, interrupting his teaching session. They brought in an adulteress challenging Jesus to pass judgment upon her: should she be stoned, as Moses taught, or not? Jesus at first ignored the interruption and continued writing on the ground as though he had not heard them. After the religious leaders continued their challenge, he stated that ‘he that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.’ The religious leaders departed, having left Jesus and the woman in the midst of the crowd. Jesus addressed the woman asking her whether anyone had condemned her, she replied ‘’none Lord’’. Jesus then said that he, too, did not condemn her and told her to go and sin no more. Although nothing in this story contradicts anything else in the Gospels, many analysts of the Greek text and manuscripts of the Gospel according to St. John questioned the Johannine authorship. The Jerusalem Bible claims ‘the author of this passage is not John’.  In the early 400s, Saint Augustine used the passage extensively, and from his writings it is also clear that his heretical contemporary Faustus also used it, as well as a group of unbelievers. The Council of Trent, held between 1545 and 1563, declared that the Latin Vulgate was authentic and authoritative.

The Gospel narrative does not refer to the woman’s partner in adultery being brought before Jesus or under threat of being punished.

The painting is an early work by Bernardo Cavallino datable not later than 1635-1637 when the artist was approximately 20 years old. Parallels have been drawn with a reclining figure in the altarpiece by Battistello Caracciolo executed c.1615 for the Church of the Pio Monte della Misericordia, The Liberation of St. Peter, which of course Bernardo Cavallino would have known. Probably a greater influence at this point in his career was the work of Aniello Falcone of around 1630 and the reclining figure in the right foreground most probably derives more directly from Falcone. In effect the ties between the two artists were considerable since on the death of Bernardo Cavallino’s father Aniello acted as protector and guarantor. Bernardo Cavallino has clearly absorbed these references in his rendering of the secondary background figures and in the sharp accents of raking light. The composition marks a break from the naturalistic style of the Master of the Annunciation to the Shepherds and a move towards a greater and more three-dimensional placing of the figures within the picture plan. The present picture may be compared to the Payment of the Tribute Money and the Return of the Prodigal Son, both in the Museo di Capodemonte, Naples, which also share the same stone floor and darkened room setting. A version of this picture from the Museo di Castelvecchio, Verona, was also included in the 1938 Naples exhibition, equally attributed to Cavallino, but the attribution was rejected by Roberto Longhi. It is probable that Bernardo Cavallino’s picture, which shares similar dimensions, is in fact that recorded in 1716 as being in the Neapolitan collection of Francesco de Palma de Artois, Duca di Sant’Elia.

28 2/8 x 39 ¾ in. (72 x 101 cm)
Oil on canvas

Francesco de Palma de Artois, Duca di Sant’Elia, 1716 (effigie della donna adultera di Quattro palmi per tre, mano di Bernardo Cavallino)

Naples, private collection.


Piccola guida della Mostra della Pittura Napoletana del 600-700-800, Naples 1938, p. 71, no. 4;

La Mostra della Pittura Napoletana del 600-700-800, Naples 1938, p. 319, no. 4.

  1. Labrot, Documents for the History of collecting Italian Inventories, I, Collection of paintings in Naples 1600-1780, Getty Provenance Index, 1992.



Mostra Della Pittura Napoletana del 600-7-800, Napoli, Castelnuovo, 1938.



Historical Period
Baroque - 1600-1720
Religious: New Testament
Italian - Neapolitan
Price band
$500,000 - $750,000