The story of Susanna and the elders is a brief text included in the book of Daniel (chapter 13) of the Old Testament by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.
This biblical episode has been present throughout the History of Art since the very early years of Christianity.
This post compare the different treatments this theme received from different male painters with the painting of Artemisia Gentileschi.
The story of Susanna
It’s the story of a woman, unfairly accused of cheating on her husband with another man by two powerful and dishonest elderly judges.
According to the Old Testament, Susanna was about to be sentenced to death for adultery when Daniel, a young man inspired by God, suddenly defend her by revealing the truth: the two judges were liars that had molested and blackmailed the innocent woman. They had surprised her alone while she was bathing in her home’s garden, and threatened her to publicly accuse her of betraying her husband if she didn’t consent to their perverted desire. Susanna, loyal to her husband, had rebuffed and screamed for help. Unable to subdue her, they decided to take revenge. Only the young prophet Daniel could come to rescue Susanna. In the end, the two elders were sentenced to death.
Susanna and the elders in Art
This story was especially popular among European painters in the 16th and 17th centuries as Rembrandt, Tintoretto, Guido Reni, Paolo Veronese, Ludovico Carracci, Rubens, Van Dyck and Artemisia Gentileschi to name just a few.
As you can imagine, a story that was treated by many artists spawned different artistic interpretations. In early examples, the focus is on the vindication of Susanna and sets her as an example of Roman piety and faith, comforting the deceased families that they will be vindicated by god like Susanna. In 15th and 16th century the artists highlighted the nude Susanna bathing in the gardens. Especially in Baroque period, the artists emphasized the drama.
Different treatments of the subject
The most of these paintings coincided in the characterization of the elders, they remain fairly static, usually portrayed with dark and plain clothes in darkness; partially obscured behind a wall or foliage, often with a lurid grin. Their arms reach towards Susanna.
On the other hand, we find extraordinary variations in the treatment of Susanna. Often it depends on the moment selected. In some paintings, we find a lady oblivious to the gaze of her stalkers; in others, she is aware of the elders’ menacing presence.
As example of the first case is the painting of Tintoretto. Here, Susanna is represented as a vain woman, much more preoccupied by her own reflection in the mirror, she can’t see the elders peering at her from behind the wall.
Susanna and the elders by Tintoretto – 1557 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Another curious example is the one by Rembrandt. Susanna felt ashamed, because she is aware that she was caught naked not just by the elders, but by the painting viewers too. Both examples make the viewers take part in the story. The viewers act like the elders, as voyeurs of a lady bathing. As viewers, we don’t come to her defence, but choose instead to gaze at her naked and vulnerable.
Susanna and the elders by Rembrandt (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
According to Mary Garrard in her book Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany, this biblical passage holding forth an exemplum of female chastity became a celebration of sexual opportunity. And Griselda Pollock said in her book Differencing the Canon that “the dramatic focus on the moment of the woman’s nakedness while bathing exposed to a lecherous conspiracy emphasized the sexual, voyeuristic and visually violating aspects of the theme, while providing a biblical and even theological justification for the painting of an erotic female nude, a genre that was emerging in this period, shifting the connotations of the female nude from its traditional iconographic association with Truth towards its modern signification of (masculine) desire and its privileged visuality.”
A very different treatment we find in the painting by Alessandro Allori. Here Susanna not only notice the presence of the elders, but she seems to pull the head of one of them to her face with one hand (maybe for a kiss?), and with the other hand she holds the face of the other man in her lap. The expression of her face is not of horror or fear. At this point, one may wonder “is she resisting or imploring?”
Susanna and the elders by Alessandro Allori (Photo credit: Italian Ways)
In this painting she is not innocent, but fully mature sexual temptress scheming to ruin the reputation of honourable men. Here the victim has become victimizer.
One of the most commented versions is the one by Artemisia Gentileschi, the painting is one of the earliest works of the artist and probably is the only painting of this subject done by a woman.
Susanna and the elders by Artemisia Gentileschi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Here the subject is framed quite close to the viewer, just a bench where Susanna sits naked, recoiling from two men that incline over the wall. In Gentileschi’s painting Susanna shows with her gestures and face expression more horror than in any other, achieving a strong emotional power by focusing on victimization.
Many experts have justified this Gentileschi’s treatment of the subject by her own experience of rape and torture during the subsequent trial. In my opinion, she was not influenced by her own experience. As I said before, she is probably the only woman who has painted this subject, and she did so from the perspective of the victim because as a woman it is natural to feel identified with Susanna instead of the elders. Could she have done differently? Yes, I have no doubt. But why would she give this subject the same treatment as her contemporaries when she could make an original approach?
I think she decided consciously to paint the story from Susanna’s perspective. And, of course, it was easier for her, after all, any woman who knows this story, feels identified with Susanna and experiences the same horror and fear that is expressed in the painting of Gentileschi.
- The story of Susanna and the elders is listed in Article VI of the 95 articles of the Church of England among the books which are read “for example of life and instruction of manners”, but not for the formation of doctrine.
- Also it’s one of the additions that is considered apocryphal by protestants.
- This story isn’t included in the Jewish Tanakh and is not mentioned in early Jewish literature, although the text does appear to have been part of the original Septuagint.
- Book: “Artemisia and Susanna,” Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany, Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, eds., pp. 146-171
- Book: Differencing the Canon, Griselda Pollock p.105
- Bible Odissey
- Italian Ways
- The life and art of Artemisia Gentileschi
- Suny Oneonta Art Department
- Wikipedia: Susanna (book of Daniel); Susanna and the elders (Tintoretto and Rembrandt)