Susanna and the Elders

Fleur looks at the female artist, Artemisia Gentileschi’s interpretation of this story through a different lens with some fascinating revelations.

Susanna and the Elders

Detail of Susanna and the Elders (c.1610) by Artemisia Gentileschi. Oil on canvas. 
Schloss Weißenstein collection, Pommersfelden, Germany. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Full picture at the end of this article.

Considering that this is Artemisia Gentileschi’s first known signed painting, Susanna and the Elders is a highly accomplished work. The very disturbing story in the Book of Daniel, chapter 13, was a popular theme in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Yet was its prevalence simply to highlight its ultimately just outcome, or rather, to indulge male fantasies about naked women? Painting the female nude, especially via a biblical motif, has legitimised voyeurism and sexual objectification of women under the guise of ‘fine art’ for centuries but Gentileschi’s interpretation enables another perspective on this debate. 

In the Old Testament story, Joakim’s beautiful wife Susanna is spied on by two elderly and lecherous men while bathing in her own garden. The two men were prominent in the community, they were judges respected for their wisdom, and had lusted after Susanna for some time. When they seized an opportunity to hide in her garden while the maidservants were fetching water and olive oil, they wasted no time in blackmailing Susanna for sex. Now Susanna was a woman of great faith, and in spite of her fears and dangerous predicament, she refused consent at great cost to her reputation and her very life.

“’I am completely trapped. For if I do this, it will mean death for me; if I do not, I cannot escape your hands.  I choose not to do it; I will fall into your hands, rather than sin in the sight of the Lord’. Then she cried out at the top of her voice.” 13:22-23

The author’s inclusion of Susanna crying out highlights her faith and knowledge of the Torah as Deuteronomy 22:24 states that if a woman who is raped does not cry out, her accusation of rape will not be believed. So, the two rejected elders accused Susanna of adultery – a crime which was punishable by death. Since there were no witnesses to Susanna’s innocence she was automatically put on trial. Again, Susanna’s situation is magnified by the fact that two witnesses partake in a well-established accusation recorded in Deuteronomy 19:15, which states that two witnesses are required to bring a defendant to court. The elders’ seemingly identical accusations and their position as valid witnesses seal Susanna’s fate; and the court condemns her to death.

However, Susanna is miraculously saved due to the young prophet Daniel’s questioning of the elders separately. Daniel was an important advisor to the Babylonian and Persian kings in 6th century B.C.E. and renowned for his ability to interpret dreams (like Joseph in Egypt in the Old Testament). By observing inconsistencies in their accounts of what happened and under which tree, Daniel revealed their testimonies to be untrue, thus clearing Susanna’s name. The elders were executed for their crime and Susanna is vindicated, but this story begs further questions about the social and legal treatment of women in ancient Israel.  

This painting shows a deeply uncomfortable Susanna with the two men lurking above her while she bathes. It is much more convincing than most pictures of this event which tend to focus on Susanna’s nudity and vulnerability as something to behold rather than to challenge. The scene is usually eroticised rather than condemned. Here however, Susanna’s body is twisted showing her distress, her splayed fingers push at the air in repulsion by this unwanted male attention. She cannot bear to look at the men and their evil intentions as she cowers in disgust. Notice how Susanna’s feet and ankles are red from the hot water but she has no time to cool down or dry herself. Gentileschi’s interpretation of the story excelled precisely because she was a woman who understood the female form and psyche more accurately, enabling her to depict a more dynamic scene of sexual advance than any male artist was capable of imagining. 

By omitting any landscape or background apart from a few clouds, and portraying Susanna in a stone enclosure, we view this scene from the victim’s perspective. Replacing the typical garden scene used by most other artists, Gentileschi emphasises Susanna’s powerlessness to act – cornered in her own bath, she has nowhere to escape. The vertical composition also highlights the hierarchy of genders – with the two elders at the top, dominant and hovering over their prey. They connive and collude as their heavy cloaks cover the width of the picture, ready to pounce and snatch at Susanna if she tries to resist. These elders are focused on one thing only as they pressurise Susanna with their imposing demands and oppressive gestures. She can only plead with God right there and at the trial.

“Eternal God, … you know that these men have given false evidence against me. And now I am to die, innocent as I am of everything their malice has invented against me!” 13:42-43.

Sexual violence was already a reality for Gentileschi, since she herself was raped by her father’s friend and tutor, Agostino Tassi. Tassi would be put on trial for this crime and for refusing to marry her after raping her — yet he would be sentenced to a year in prison he would never serve. Artemesia was doubly betrayed by her father who neither protected nor defended her while Susanna finally found justice. One theory about this painting is that the two men represent Gentileschi’s father and tutor deployed as a device for expressing the harassment that Artemisia endured for years. Much of Gentileschi’s future work depicted justice in the most graphic fashion on a number of biblical and religious themes. She focused on strong heroines such as Judith Slaying Holofernes and Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist, both of which show female protagonists in barbarous acts against men.

The writer John Berger has written extensively about the role of women in art in his book Ways of Seeing. He describes men and women as ‘the surveyor and the surveyed’. How a woman appears to a man is determined by how he will treat her regardless of how she would like him to treat her. In many pictures of Susanna painted by men, she is looking back at us as we look at her, to conceal the real purpose of her nudity – to allow men to fantasise about naked women and to disguise this truth by creating the allusion that women enjoy the male gaze. What is striking about Gentileschi’s version is that she is very clearly looking away, shunning the male predator and us the viewer. 

The story of Susanna can be divided into two halves. The first half models a flat literary template: one damsel in distress and two evil elders. The second half reverses this template by ensuring Susanna stays vulnerable and helpless, by introducing a third element which is key to her survival – Daniel. While it may appear that Daniel’s wisdom saves the day, it is Susanna’s faith in the face of rape and death, that summons God’s intervention. 

Susanna was a fictional heroine whose symbolic appeal lay in the idea of innocent virtue eventually conquering evil. Her name in Hebrew means a lily, the symbol of purity. She became a popular subject in art because of these connotations, especially in Christian art, which made Susanna a symbol of the church.

Further Reading:

The Book of Daniel, chapter 13 – all Catholic Bibles.

Ways of Seeing by John Berger. Penguin.