This week, I gave a lecture on Susanna and the Elders paintings specifically Artemisia Gentileschi’s version from 1610. Afterwards, one of the students came up and said how much she enjoyed the discussion, but also how she had never heard of Susanna, let alone seen any of these paintings. I wasn’t shocked, but I was still a little surprised. It is so easy when we are steeped in this art discussion to forget how many of these topics and even the artworks themselves are completely unknown to the regular public. Moral of the story, I was excited that I already knew about so many of these works while I was doing research for my lecture and I’m excited to share them with you!
This discussion is going to center on the above painting: Susanna and the Elders by Artemisia Gentileschi from c. 1610. But for us to fully understand the painting, there are some important aspects we have to discuss first. An important thing to remember as we go through this discussion is that no painting or art work is created in a vacuum. There are patrons, individual artists, societal contexts, themes of the topic, and more that go into the creation and interpretation of any painting. This post is also going to be less formal than a fully researched paper as this is a topic I am still working on developing. So please continue the conversation with your own thoughts and opinions in the comments!
So first, we have to start with a brief historical placing. What else is happening in Europe that is relevant? This artistic period is right in the shift from the Renaissance into Mannerism and the Baroque. Artemisia clearly falls in the Renaissance/Baroque camp instead of Mannerism, but all of this is happening almost in tandem. As this is a religious painting, we would be remiss not to mention what is happening in European religion at this time. To say it was a contentious time would be an understatement. Martin Luther had already nailed his 95 Thesis to the church door leading to the Protestant Reformation. The Catholic Church has also started their own retaliation with the Counter-Reformation. The Counter-Reformation used art as an important tool in their propaganda machine to rebrand the Catholic Church, and all of that is centered in Rome where the Vatican is and where Artemisia is born and learning how to paint.
The first thing I like to do when analyzing any religious painting is to look back at the biblical text. You never know what kind of interpretation or mis-interpretations have occurred and starting with the text allows us to start on the same basic footing as the artist, patron, and contemporary viewers.
The story of Susanna comes from the Book of Daniel when the Jews are exiled in Babylon. Susanna is presented as the ideal woman. She is married to Joakim who is a wealthy man and she is the daughter of a pious man. The story begins a few days prior, but the important scene occurs while Susanna is taking a bath in her private garden. Two elders from the community wanted to seduce Susanna and had snuck into the garden to wait for her to be alone in her bath. Once her maids leave, the elders approach Susanna and tell her that unless she sleeps with them, they will publicly swear that she committed adultery with a young man. As Susanna was married to Joakim, this was a crime punishable by death if she was found guilty. Despite that, Susanna tells the elders no. They immediately spread the rumor that Susanna committed adultery and Susanna is arrested. She is about to be executed for her crime when Daniel intercedes. That rest of the story focuses on Daniel instead of Susanna as he proves her innocence and protects her from execution. The thematic focus of the story is innocent virtue triumphing over evil which is a popular religious theme as well as a popular theme in Renaissance and Baroque paintings.
In terms of the art community, Artemisia is not the first person to paint this subject. In fact, beginning in the 1470s, Susanna becomes a popular subject matter chosen by artists and patrons alike to be displayed in both religious and private locations. The Catholic Church especially adopts Susanna as an allegorical figure of the Church during the Counter-Reformation. She is a symbol of Old Testament, heroic virtue that is incorruptible. It also becomes a good story for the Roman Catholic Church to highlight as Martin Luther had moved her story to the Apocrypha and excluded her from printed Bibles while the Catholic Church kept her story within the Book of Daniel.
So let’s get to the exciting part: Artemisia. This work is actually the first known work to be painted entirely by Artemisia – she is ~17 when she signs and completes the painting. To say that this is a bold coming out into the art world statement is an understatement. She paints a nude woman showing off her skill painting figures and her knowledge of the human body. She paints a complicated religious subject showing her knowledge of the Bible and this topic as a whole. Finally, Susanna’s body is contoured in such a way that is extreme, but also realistic which hints at Artemisia’s gender and therefore knowledge of how the female body moves and contorts. Most artists depict Susanna before she is aware of the elders. She is still peacefully enjoying her bath and she seems to be seducing the audience as she baths herself. Artemisia focuses on a later moment in the story. Susanna is not only aware of the elders, but forcibly trying to escape them. She completely changes the implication of this subject was a young, beautiful woman on display for the male viewers gaze, to a distract and virtuous woman resisting temptation. Mary Garrard describes this painting as rare because “it presents us with a three-dimensional female character who is heroic.” Most artists tend to focus on the elder’s anticipated pleasure instead of Susanna’s distress at her plight that is the central action of the story.
We are going to leave it here for now, but look out for more discussions of this painting in the context of Artemisia’s greater ouevre in the future!