Celebrating the 500th anniversary of Tintoretto, 4: Saints and sinners

Jacopo Tintoretto (c 1518-1594), Susannah and the Elders (detail) (c 1555) (E&I 64), oil on canvas, 146 x 193.6 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

At about the time that Tintoretto was painting a cycle of works based on the early chapters of the book of Genesis, in the early 1550s, he completed three religious paintings for the Palazzo dei Camerlenghi. One of those contains an unusual combination of figures.

Jacopo Tintoretto (c 1518-1594), Saint George, Saint Louis and the Princess (1552) (E&I 59), oil on canvas, 226 x 146 cm, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice, Italy. Image by Didier Descouens, via Wikimedia Commons.

Saint George, Saint Louis and the Princess (E&I 59) from 1552 has also had an unusually troubled history, as it was resized in 1777 and has had to undergo extensive work to restore it to its original glory.

The knight in black armour is Saint George, with his white charger behind. Saint Louis of Toulouse (1274-1297) stands at the right in his full bishop’s regalia, looking down at the head of a dragon with George’s broken lance beside it. Sat astride the body of that dragon is the Princess, whose life has just been saved by George.

There is an obvious anachronism, in that the legend of Saint George and the dragon dates back to around 300 CE, and was already recorded in Europe before the birth of Saint Louis. The composition is a very unconventional treatment of a story from the Golden Legend which was already a popular theme in paintings.

As Tintoretto advertised on the entrance to his studio, the painting excels in both form and colour. It also has one of the most painterly skies on the far side of the nineteenth century.

Tintoretto (1519–1594), Saint George and the Dragon (c 1555) (E&I 62), oil on canvas, 158.3 x 100.5 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Within a couple of years, around 1553-55, Tintoretto revisited this story and retold it in his small masterpiece of Saint George and the Dragon. The saint, the dragon and the Princess have escaped the confines of that earlier votive painting, and now run free in a rich green coastal landscape of the artist’s invention – or, given that he hardly ever set foot outside the city of Venice, inspired by the paintings of others.

He also winds the clock back a few minutes to capture George still locked in battle with the dragon, and the Princess, clearly identifiable as the same woman from Saint George, Saint Louis and the Princess, runs in terror. The dragon’s last victim still lies on the grass, his blue clothing in tatters. Above them and the massive walls of a distant fortress is the figure of God, in a brilliant mandorla in the heavens.

One of Tintoretto’s preparatory drawings for this painting is in the Louvre collection, a study for the body of the dragon’s dead victim. Remarkably little underdrawing has been found in the painting itself. Tintoretto used a classical range of pigments: high quality ultramarine for the clothing of the Princess and shreds on the corpse, malachite and verdigris with copper resinate glazes for the rich range of greens, and traces of vermilion and lead-tin yellow to tint the mandorla.

Most of the painting was executed in just one or two layers, with superficial glazes to finish, which is consistent with Tintoretto’s reputation for painting very rapidly. The only exception to this is in the clothing of the Princess, where, for instance, the gesso ground was first glazed in a dark ultramarine, lead white highlights were added, with areas being glazed thinly with ultramarine again.

Prior to its major conservation work at the National Gallery in the early 1970s, it had been assumed that this was one of Tintoretto’s smaller easel paintings, even being described as a miniature! That work discovered and reinstated its original arched top, to establish it as an altarpiece.

Looking in detail at his paintings from the early to mid 1550s, I am struck by Tintoretto’s great virtuosity, and the next and even greater work serves to demonstrate that: from the fairy-tale landscape of Saint George killing the dragon, within another couple of years he painted what remains a canonical account of an Old Testament story, whose reading remains highly controversial.

The story of Susannah and the Elders is odd even by Old Testament standards. Two old elders leer lecherously at a virtuous young wife as she bathes in the privacy of her garden. As she returns, they demand that she has sex with them, or they will accuse her of meeting a lover in the garden. She stands by her virtue, and they carry out their threat, resulting in the innocent Susanna(h) being condemned to death. Fortunately, the prophet Daniel intervenes, exposes the lies of the elders, they are then put to death instead of her, and Susannah’s virtue triumphs.

This is a story which has been depicted on canvas on a great many occasions, most commonly in the garden scene, where the elders confront Susannah and try to blackmail her. Contrary to the whole moral of the original story, it has not infrequently been used as an opportunity to display a nude woman in an ostensibly religious painting, ironically making the viewer as much a voyeur as the villains.

Jacopo Tintoretto (c 1518-1594), Susannah and the Elders (c 1555) (E&I 64), oil on canvas, 146 x 193.6 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

Tintoretto’s Susannah and the Elders (E&I 64) from about 1555, one of the great treasures of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria, is different. For a start, Susannah is still blissfully ignorant of being watched by the evil elders, but the viewer is not. This puts the viewer in that uncomfortable predicament of knowing what is going on (wrong), equally knowing that its actor is unaware. The less inhibited might want to call out to warn her, in the way that children do at a pantomine.

Jacopo Tintoretto (c 1518-1594), Susannah and the Elders (detail) (c 1555) (E&I 64), oil on canvas, 146 x 193.6 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

Susannah herself is a Titianesque nude, both in form and appearance, caught as she is drying her leg after bathing in the small pool beside her. Her other leg is still in the water. She is looking at herself in a rectangular mirror, which is propped up against a rosy trellis in a secluded part of her garden. Scattered in front of her are the tools of grooming, her personal jewellery, and a fine gold-encrusted girdle, behind which appear to be outer clothes. There is also a prominent Murano glass perfume burner at the edge of the pool.

It has been suggested that Susannah’s girdle is a symbolic link to the goddess Aphrodite, as could be the rose flowers of the trellis, although Susannah has little else to associate her with Aphrodite or her Roman counterpart Venus, and her story could hardly be further from those of the goddesses.

Peering round each end of the trellis are two old men dressed in orange robes, the elders. Unlike other paintings, they are not looking from an adjacent path, but have obviously entered the garden and crept right up to get a better view of Susannah. They appear furtive and evil, but Susannah is completely unaware of their presence.

Jacopo Tintoretto (c 1518-1594), Susannah and the Elders (detail) (c 1555) (E&I 64), oil on canvas, 146 x 193.6 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

Much of Tintoretto’s canvas is taken up with the details of the garden. To the right are trees, against whose foot Susannah’s back rests. Immediately above her head is a magpie, a bird associated in fables with mischief and theft.

In the centre distance, the secluded area opens out to another pond, on which there are ducks and their ducklings, then there is a covered walk beside which is a Herm.

Jacopo Tintoretto (c 1518-1594), Susannah and the Elders (detail) (c 1555) (E&I 64), oil on canvas, 146 x 193.6 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

In the left distance is a larger pond, at which a stag and a hind are drinking. On the far side are some trees and another Herm.

In addition to those peculiarities which hint at symbolic interpretations, Tintoretto is almost mischievous in his use of reflections, which in other paintings of nudes are often used to extend the view of the figure on display. The plane mirror is angled so that it shows just a glimpse of the sheet in front of Susannah, and none of her body. The only reflection shown on the surface of the pool is of her left knee and leg. Tintoretto thus denies the viewer the more intimate view obtained by the voyeuristic elder in the foreground.

Robert Wald’s paper in Falomir (op cit) gives a detailed account of this painting, based on his deep knowledge gained during its conservation. He points out that Tintoretto used one-point perspective, with a vanishing point which was changed on several occasions, but was finally fixed lower down at the far end of the covered walk.

Tintoretto made a preliminary drawing of the figure of Susannah, which he then transferred to the canvas using the popular grid system. Earlier details where there is now the duck pond were different, as seen in incised lines, but those were erased during painting, in favour of what is now seen there. There is also extensive freehand underdrawing made in black paint which was used for the details of the garden.

The painting has a ground of off-white gesso, over which a warm brown imprimatura was applied. The paint layers over that range widely from thin washes to heavier applications with surface texture. One remarkable observation is that there is no trace of blue as an independent hue.

In his first version, Tintoretto appears to have painted a small white loincloth on Susannah, but later painted that out.

My personal reading of this wonderful painting is that it is about the voyeuristic gaze. It entices us to look at a woman whose virtue is proven by the rest of the story, in a manner which is little better than that of the two vile old men. Everyone who knows the story recognises that Susannah’s virtue is eventually rewarded, but Tintoretto demonstrates how we as viewers are actually little better than those elders.

If you want a concise survey of other readings, Bernard Aikema’s paper in Falomir (op cit) is as comprehensive as any.


Robert Echols and Frederick Ilchman (2009) Toward a new Tintoretto Catalogue, with a Checklist of revised Attributions and a new Chronology, in Falomir op cit.
Miguel Falomir (ed) (2009) Jacopo Tintoretto, Proceedings of the International Symposium, Museo Nacional del Prado. ISBN 978 84 8480 171 9.
Roland Krischel (ed) (2017) Tintoretto, A Star was Born, Hirmer (in German). ISBN 978 3 777 42942 7.
Tom Nichols (2015) Tintoretto, Tradition and Identity, 2nd edition, Reaktion Books. ISBN 978 1 78023 450 2.
Joyce Plesters (1980) Tintoretto’s Paintings in the National Gallery Part II: Materials and techniques, National Gallery Technical Bulletin 4: 32-48.