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The Art of Susanna and the Elders

Over time, the artistic representation of Susanna shifts the blame from the elders to the righteous woman.


A deuterocanonical addition to the book of Daniel recounts the dramatic story of the beautiful and pious Susanna. She is the wife of the wealthy and respected Joakim, at whose Babylonian house elders gather daily to judge the people’s cases. Of these, two “wicked” elders lust after Susanna and conspire to rape her. When they see Susanna bathing alone in a locked garden, they demand sex; if she denies them, they will report that they saw her having sex with a young man. When Susanna does refuse, they publicly charge her with adultery and condemn her to death. Susanna cries out to God. At the last moment, Daniel intervenes to expose the lies, sentences the elders to death, and absolves Susanna.

This story has spawned significant artistic interpretations. Early catacomb art focuses on the vindication of Susanna and sets her as an example of (Roman) piety and faith, comforting the deceased and their families that they, like Susanna, will be vindicated by God (see the third-century catacomb fresco and the similarly-themed ninth-century Lothair Crystal). Starting in the 15th or 16th century, however, many artists highlight the nude Susanna bathing in the garden.

In most of these paintings, the characterization of the elders remains fairly static. They are usually partially obscured behind foliage or a wall; their arms reach toward Susanna; their eyes caress her; they often have a lurid grin; their features and caps are often devilishly pointed; their clothes are dark and plain; and they are cast in shadow, darkness, and obscurity. 

In contrast, Susanna’s “portrait character” sees remarkable variation, depending on the moment selected for portrayal. Some capture Susanna still oblivious to her voyeurs. Pablo Picasso arranges his oddly disjointed Susanna on a bed under the gaze of two intact men looking down at her from a painting on her wall. Rembrandt’s Susanna of 1634 is an awkward young virgin oblivious to the gaze of her stalkers but shamed by being caught naked by the painting’s viewers. Other artists take the story one step further: Susanna is aware of the elders’ menacing presence. Artemisia Gentileschi, for example, shows Susanna raising a frail hand in a futile gesture of restraint against her overpowering attackers.

Many artists show Susanna in physical contact with the elders, although the biblical account does not mention that. For example, Jean-François Millet’s Susanna has swooned into (or submitted to?) their embrace. Still others depict Susanna as the instigator of the event. Jacob Jordaens’ Susanna smiles as the elders energetically attempt to climb into the picture and into Susanna’s private space(s). Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s Susanna seems to float above her discarded scarlet robe and haughtily dismisses the proffered gift of jewelry. Tintoretto’s vain Susanna is so preoccupied by her reflection in the mirror that she fails to see the elders peering at her from behind a wall. Alessandro Allori’s Susanna seems to pull the head of an elder to her face (for a kiss?) with one hand while she holds the other’s face in her lap. Is she resisting or imploring? These Susannas are not innocent but fully mature sexual temptresses, wanton sluts scheming to ruin the reputations of honorable men. How far Susanna has fallen. The victim has become the victimizer.

Where is Susanna’s community in all of this? True to the biblical account, these later artists rarely include anyone to defend Susanna’s honor and safety, neither her maids, nor her family, nor her husband. As viewers, we do not come to her defense either but choose instead to gaze at her naked and vulnerable form, passing judgment, complicit in her demise. We silence her outraged cries, trusting God alone will hear her.

  • Jane S. Webster

    Jane S. Webster is professor of religious studies at Barton College in Wilson, N.C., author of Ingesting Jesus: Eating and Drinking in the Gospel of John, and coeditor of Teaching the Bible in the Liberal Arts Classroom and Lady Parts.