In this blog post I would like to reference the story of Susanna and the Elders which is not in most Protestant Bibles but is known by many biblical scholars and readers the world over. I touched on this story in an earlier post, and Stephen has also referred to it in passing in a couple posts. The story of Susanna and the Elders is included in the book of Daniel in Bibles which contain the Apocrypha or “Deutero-canonical” books (such as in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles).
In this story, a young woman was accused of cheating on her husband and was about to be sentenced to death when Daniel, no doubt inspired, revealed that the two judges who had attempted to blackmail the woman into indulging their desires were liars. If she did not do so she would pay the ultimate price. The judges were eventually themselves sentenced to death because of their immoral behaviour. Susanna was proved innocent and freed.
The story was particularly popular in the 16th and 17th centuries. Rembrandt, Tintoretto, Guido Reni, Rubens, Van Dyck and Artemisia Gentileschi among others all painted interpretations of the moralistic story. Artemisia Gentileschi has been referenced several times in this blog and she appears again as she has a rather unique interpretation of female characters as opposed to her male counterparts. She was almost exclusively painting as a female at this time in history. Tintoretto paints his Susanna (above) as vain and conceited, and Rembrandt paints her as a victim, in which the male gaze sees her as naked and ashamed. However, it has been said that Artemisia Gentileschi also paints her Susanna as a victim, due to the fact that the artist herself had been raped and she knew first hand the horrors of such an act. The position that Susanna found herself in was impossible and it was a situation that many women have found themselves in simply due to the fact that they are of the fair sex. If it was not for Daniel she may have been executed for a crime of which she was innocent. She may have loved her husband and perhaps was faithful to him but her crime was to be beautiful. However, the story is not perhaps so much about Susanna’s predicament as Daniel’s perceptive powers which the book would have us believe is divinely inspired.
On a personal note, it was of interest to me to see a modern contemporary portrait of Susannah and the elders, 1931-32, by the artist J.W. Power in the brand new museum at the University of Sydney, the Chau Chak Wing Museum, which has recently opened to the public.* Whilst the interpretation was not one of my favourites it was of interest to me that a modern artist should choose this subject as his theme and to interpret it in such a 20th century manner. It would seem that the story of beauty being victimised and manipulated is an eternal one. So much so that it has been included in many versions of the Bible throughout the world and many artists have attempted to capture the essence of the story.
* [Editor’s note: Dr John Joseph Wardell Power studied medicine at the University of Sydney, graduating in 1905, and studied art in Paris in 1920-22. He left the greater part of his estate to the University of Sydney. With it the university established the Power Institute of Fine Arts.]