He said, she said. Susanna and the Elders

He said, she said. Susanna and the Elders

Article by Jimena Escoto

“Women are from Venus and men are from Mars.” Surely, you’ve heard and said this phrase at least once. It is a common way of referring to the widely different views in which women and men see the world. As we see an artwork, we cannot make the assumption that such representation is the only and true one.

Every artist prioritize what he or she thinks it is necessary and interprets the scene from his or her point of view. That is why we find in some artworks that depict similar stories different messages. An example of it is the biblical story of Susanna and the elders.

The Book of Daniel (13) tells the story of a young, well-educated and beautiful woman, Susanna from Babylon. Since her husband was very rich, many men visited him at his house. Two elders were appointed judges and were required to visit Jo’akim, the husband, regularly. As it was custom for Susanna, she went to walk to the garden and the elders noticed her. Not only did they agree that her beauty was unique, but also, they started to desire her to the point where they planned to “seduce” her. On one particularly hot day, Susanna, unaware of these men plan, decided to take a bath in the garden. She ordered her maids to bring her oil and ointments. The elders who were patiently waiting for her to be alone, ran to her and said:
“Look, the garden doors are shut, no one sees us, and we are in love with you; so give your consent, and lie with us. 21 If you refuse, we will testify against you that a young man was with you, and this was why you sent your maids away.” (Daniel 13:20, 13:21)

Susanna refuse to lay with the elders, and in turn they accused her of adultery. Eventually, Susanna is rescued by Daniel during her trial. Have Daniel not arrived on time, she would have been executed. I think it is fair to assume that most people (ideally, everyone) would consider this story as a demonstration of sexual harassment. Curious how things haven’t changed that much, right?

Anyway, the point of this article is to show how different male and female artists have represented this story. In the mid-XVI century, Tintoretto represented the moment in which Susanna is being watched by the elders.

If we contrast it with the painting of Artemisia Gentileschi, we can say that Tintoretto’s interpretation of the event is not a hurtful one, it looks erotic; whereas in Gentileschi’s case, the scene is one of violence; Susanna is trying to get away from them while the elders keep insisting. In reality, it is not a surprise that Artemisia represented the scene as such, as she herself was victim of sexual abuse.

However if one wants to argue in defense of Tintoretto by saying that this was prior to the harassment scene, Tintoretto also painted that moment. But again, it doesn’t look as hurtful as we could imagine. Even though one of the elders is touching her, her face seems in peace; contrary to Gentileschi’s expression of horror in Susanna’s face. And the other elder has a pose as if he was innocent in his doing. It doesn’t really gives you the impression of sexual harassment.

Alessandro Allori, a Tintoretto’s contemporary, takes this even further. His Susanna seems to not only have succumbed into temptation; but she also has become the seducer! In his representation Susanna is seen holding one of the elders down towards her, while her other hand is seductively brushing the other’s face.

Meanwhile, Jacob Jordaen’s Susanna seems to be enjoying and encouraging the elders to pursue her as she smirks at them.

Now, I am fully aware these men have not been the only male artists to paint such scene. Actually, many of the old masters among them, Rubens, Rembrandt, Lorenzo Lotto, etc., have taken a similar interpretation as Gentileschi’s.

Nonetheless, it is interesting in seeing how these painters differ on their views about the same story.

Webster, J. (2017). The Art of Susanna and the Elders. January 17th, 2018, de Bible Odyssey Sitio web:

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