Susanna and the Elders 1: Origins and early development

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1653), Susanna and the Elders (1610), oil on canvas, 170 x 119 cm, Schloss Weißenstein, Pommersfelden, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Popular painted narratives which examine critically issues facing women throughout history are few. Among them, and some of the most popular narrative religious paintings in the Western canon, are the stories of Susanna and the elders, and Bathsheba and King David.

They are both among the stranger tales of the Old Testament, which have graced the work of artists since the Middle Ages. As stories, they contain all the ingredients of success: sex, death, sudden reversals in fortune, and happy outcomes. This weekend I look at Susanna and the elders in two articles, and next weekend I will do the same for Bathsheba and King David.

The story of Susanna (or Shoshana, also sometimes Susannah) and the Elders is told in the Old Testament book of Daniel, chapter 13, and centres on voyeurism, blackmail, and justice. Susanna was a beautiful married woman who was bathing in her garden one afternoon, having dismissed her servants. Two lustful elders spied on her, and as she returned to her house they stopped her, and threatened that, unless she agreed to have sex with them, they would claim that she had met her lover in the garden. Being virtuous, Susanna refused their blackmail, and was promptly arrested, charged with promiscuity, and awaited her execution.

The young prophet Daniel interrupted the process, demanding that the elders should be properly questioned before such a severe penalty was applied. When questioned individually, the two elders gave differing accounts, most notably in the type of tree under which Susanna allegedly met her lover. The accusations were thus revealed to be false, Susanna was acquitted of the charge, and the two elders were executed instead.

For the visual artist, the richest possibilities in telling this story are in scenes involving Susanna and the two elders in or near the garden. In literary narrative, the crux with surprise and reversal occurs when Daniel reveals the elders’ false testimony, leading to their conviction and death.

Although that and other scenes after the elders tried to blackmail Susanna have been shown in painting, experience has shown that they make complex and visually weak paintings. I therefore concentrate in these articles on the most popular depictions, from Susanna bathing to the elders’ attempt to blackmail her.

There are several miniatures in Mediaeval illustrated books which show Susanna in her garden, but these are intended as illustrations rather than standalone works of art, and I have not been able to find suitable images of them either. So my account starts in the early Renaissance.

Gentile da Fabriano (1370–1427), Susanna and the Elders (c 1400), colour on panel, 32.9 x 56.6 cm, Muzeum Kolekcji im. Jana Pawła II, Warsaw, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

Gentile da Fabriano’s early painting from around 1400 establishes the key elements in the garden scene: Susanna is shown naked in a large tub of water, with the two elders on either side of her, reaching out at her against her will. He also introduces two elements which became assumed by most later artists, that the elders enter the secluded part of the garden in order to see Susanna, and that they attempt to blackmail her while she is still naked.

The younger man sat at the left is most probably Daniel himself, and not intended to be physically present during this scene, but his presence may be symbolic of his later intervention and interrogation of the elders.

Zanobi Strozzi (1412–1468), Susanna and the Elders (c 1450), tempera and gold on poplar wood, 41 x 168 cm, Musée du Petit Palais, Avignon, France. Wikimedia Commons.

This image of Zanobi Strozzi’s account from about 1450 is of limited quality, but is one of the few attempts to tell this story using multiplex narrative. In the central two scenes, Susanna enters her garden, and gets into the bath there, with the two elders physically grappling with her in their attempted rape. To the left of them are the two heads of the elders when they were earlier spying on Susanna.

The scenes at the left and right tell parts of the later story, but it is not entirely clear which. That on the left appears to be a trial, possibly the second trial of the two elders in which Daniel has intervened. That at the right may show the two elders taken out of town to be executed.

Domenico di Michelino (1417–1491), Susanna and the Elders (1460-75), oil, 40.5 x 38 cm, Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ. Wikimedia Commons.

Shortly after that, in about 1460-75, Domenico di Michelino placed the three figures in a much tighter arrangement, making clear how the elders are mauling Susanna’s flesh, and restraining her as she looks to the heavens for help. He has also introduced some potential symbols: fruit on the trees, which may allude to Eve and original sin, and a young deer to the left.

Lorenzo Lotto (1480–1556/7), Susanna and the Elders (1517), oil on panel, 50 x 60 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Lorenzo Lotto advanced the narrative in his painting from 1517, adding two inscribed scrolls with literary references. None of the figures here is duplicated, but this uses multiplex narrative, as it shows a composite of at least two scenes from different sections of the story.

In the foreground, Susanna’s nakedness is reinforced by her garments strewn around her, including a pair of black platform shoes. Entering this walled section of garden at the right is Daniel, ready to interrogate the two elders.

These paintings, wonderful thought they are, contrast with the immensely complex and sophisticated work by Tintoretto from about 1555, less than forty years after Lotto’s.

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.

For the first time, Susanna is blissfully unaware of being watched by the evil elders. This puts the viewer in the uncomfortable predicament of knowing what is going on, but also knowing that its actor is unaware.

Susanna herself is caught as she is drying her leg after bathing in the small pool beside her, 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. Susanna’s girdle could a symbolic link to the goddess Aphrodite, as could be the rose flowers of the trellis, although her story could hardly be further from those of the goddesses.

Peering round each end of the trellis are the two old elders dressed in orange robes, who have entered the garden and crept right up to get a better view of Susanna’s body. To the right are trees, against whose foot Susanna’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. 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.

Unlike in other paintings of nudes, where mirrors are often used to extend the view of the figure on display, neither the image seen in the mirror nor the reflection on the water show anything more of Susanna.

Paolo Veronese (1528–1588), Susannah and the Elders (date not known), oil on canvas, 198 x 198 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Several different paintings of Susanna and the elders have been attributed to Paolo Veronese. Without wishing to enter into any controversies over which might have been painted by his own hand, this version probably from around 1570, slightly later than Tintoretto’s, is fairly representative in its approach.

Susanna may now be clothed, but one of the elders is making obvious advances, with his left hand reaching down for her breast. The men are putting their proposition to her, and her body language gives a resolute response. To the left, a Herm emphasises their intent.

The seventeenth century saw many superb paintings of this story. Here I will show just those of the great Artemisia Gentileschi, who from her personal experience probably had deepest insight into Susanna’s predicament; in tomorrow’s concluding article I will show paintings by Rembrandt and Rubens which were contemporary.

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1653), Susanna and the Elders (1610), oil on canvas, 170 x 119 cm, Schloss Weißenstein, Pommersfelden, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Artemisia Gentileschi’s first painting of this motif from 1610 remains her best-known, and with Tintoretto’s is one of the canonical paintings. Gone are the decorations, symbols, and diversions, in favour of a close-up of the three actors at the crucial moment that the elders tell Susanna of their ‘generous offer’.

They are as thick as thieves, one whispering into the ear of the other, who holds his left hand to his mouth as he commits his crime. Susanna is naked, distressed, and her arms are trying to fend the elders off. Her face tells of her pain and refusal to succumb to their blackmail.

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1653), Susanna and the Elders (autograph copy) (1630), oil, 162.5 x 121.9 cm, Castle Museum and Art Gallery, Nottingham, England. Wikimedia Commons.

This copy of Gentileschi’s later (1630) version of the story has many features in common with the earlier one, such as the elder to the right leaning over the wall behind Susanna with his index finger raised. Susanna’s response is still pained, but she stares more passively up towards the sky while trying to cover her nakedness from the men.

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1653), Susanna and the Elders (c 1652), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Painted only a year or so before her death, in about 1652, Gentileschi’s last telling of the story is perhaps the least condemnatory. Susanna raises her hand to signal her resistance, but her face is seen in profile and its expression appears less pained.