Hear Expert Commentary
Speaker: Melissa Venator
Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellow for Modern Art
Saint Louis Art Museum
This is a painting titled Christ and the Sinner, made in 1917 by Max Beckmann. It shows a passage from the Gospel of John from the New Testament of the Christian Bible. In the passage Jesus is asked to determine the fate of a woman accused of adultery. The law called for her to be stoned to death, but Jesus responded, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her,” the source of the familiar expression, “let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” It’s interpreted as a lesson in the virtue of forgiveness and a warning against hypocrisy. After all, are any of us so good that we can judge the action of others?
Beckmann often depicted scenes from the Bible, but he wasn’t a particularly religious man. For him, biblical stories represented universal themes, like the idea of forgiveness, easily understood by the average German. And that’s an important point to remember. In the German census of 1910, over 98 percent of Germans identified as Christian, either Protestant or Catholic. They would be familiar enough with Bible stories to identify the subject of this painting from the figures alone, and they would also know its moral lesson.
But while Beckmann refers to the biblical account, he also departs from it. Jesus stands at the center in a white robe, but Beckmann shows him beardless and bald, looking, in fact, very much like Beckmann himself. The woman at his feet is the woman accused of adultery, kneeling in prayer and thanking Jesus for his intercession. The other figures are harder to identify. One may be a soldier, another in tights and a red pointed hat and apron is a complete mystery. And they all make bizarre hand gestures. These are puzzles with no clear answers, which leave us with unresolved curiosity, a response I regularly have to Beckmann’s art.
As we try to understand Christ and the Sinner, its date helps a lot: 1917, the middle of World War I. By then Beckmann’s war was already over. He volunteered as a medical orderly in early 1915 and spent a year in occupied Belgium caring for wounded soldiers. In a letter home, he described how the wounded men reminded him of the sufferings of Jesus, likely the only example of a heavily wounded man he had ever encountered in his life before the war.
Beckmann’s constant exposure to pain and death led to a breakdown and discharge on medical grounds. While recuperating he began to paint large biblical scenes in a new angular and more abstract style, paintings including Christ and the Sinner. For Germans in the midst of war, not just Beckmann, the Bible’s apocalyptic narrative seemed a wholly appropriate metaphor for the large-scale human loss and environmental devastation.