Susanna at Her Bath

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Susanna at Her Bath

The apocryphal story of Susanna and the elders, dated circa sixth century bce, became a favorite subject of painters of the early modern period. Although it is not in the Hebrew text of the book of Daniel, it was transmitted through the Greek Bible and in versions that derive from it. The Latin and Greek Orthodox Church have always considered this story as part of the book of Daniel, and it is cited as a canonical text as early as Irenaeus and Tertullian, and by Origen in the Epistle to Julius Africanus.

In the story Susanna (in Hebrew, "lily"), a most virtuous and beautiful woman, wife of Joakim, a rich and respected member of the Jewish community in Babylon, decides on a hot day to take a cool bath in the garden. Overhearing this, two elders or judges who had been visiting her house, after pretending to leave, return with illicit desires. Spying on the naked Susanna, they tell her that they will accuse her of adultery with a young man if she does not satisfy their lust. This would bring the death penalty upon her, according to the law.

In this dire predicament, Susanna cries out in despair. As the alarmed maids arrive, the elders accuse Susanna of coupling with a young lover. The following day everyone is assembled for the judgment, as the two elders pronounce their false accusation against Susanna. They claim that Susanna sent away the maids and lay with the young man who was hiding and got away when the two elders unsuccessfully tried to capture him, and that Susanna would not reveal his name to them. They solemnly testify to this accusation. Everyone believes them because of their reputation and prestige. Susanna is condemned to die based on this false charge, but she prays fervently to the Lord, being a woman of faith and virtue, asking God to come to her rescue. Her prayer is heard and the Lord fills with holy spirit a youth named Daniel, who cries out loudly that this woman is innocent: "I am clear of the blood of this woman." Daniel interrogates the two elders separately and proves that they are lying because they contradict one another. One states that they saw the two copulating under a mastic tree, the other under an oak. The two elders are unmasked and sentenced to death, and Susanna's virtue and reputation are reestablished. Daniel's wisdom is acclaimed by the people, and his prophetic spirit praised.

The story of Susanna has been of great interest to painters and other visual artists because of the inspirational character of Susanna's beauty and virtue, as well as her perseverance and faith in her God. Some painters have portrayed the episode in an erotic and sensuous vein, whereas others have placed emphasis on her virtue. Feminist scholarship has interpreted Susanna as an example of male violence, patriarchal hegemony, and abuse. Indeed, the portrayal of the scene by Artemisia Gentileschi (c. 1597–c. 1651) projects pain and modesty, the objectification of the woman, her fright and shame, while also showing the beauty and shapeliness of her naked body, as well as the wicked pose of the two elders. It is interesting to compare Gentileschi's version with that of her contemporary Anthony Van Dyck (1599–1641), as well as with renditions by other artists, such as Jacopo da Empoli (1554–1640); Lodovico Carracci (1555–1619), the Bolognese painter who rejects the erotic and focuses on the virtues; Il Guercino (1591–1666); Rembrandt (1606–1669); Tintoretto (c. 1518–1594); and a contemporary artist such as Vasili Ryabchenko (1991). Van Dyck's painting appears in the film Psycho (1960) by Alfred Hitchcock, suggesting male violence and a parallel with the movie's plot. Gus Van Sant's 1998 remake of Psycho substitutes another painting (possibly, according to Donato Totaro, a Titian, Venus with a Mirror), which would change the narrative intention.

Because of the multiple allegorical dimensions of the episode, the story of Susanna and the elders is of considerable interest to feminists, artists, biblical scholars, and also film critics.

see also Art; Erotic Art; Gaze; Nude in Visual Arts.


Bohn, Babette. 2001. "Rape and the Gendered Gaze: Susanna and the Elders in Early Modern Bologna." Biblical Interpretation 9(3): 259-286.

Glancy, Jennifer A. 1995. "The Accused: Susanna and Her Readers." In A Feminist Companion to Esther, Judith, and Susanna, ed. Athalya Brenner. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press.

Hartman, Louis F. 1968. "Daniel." In Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

MacKenzie, R. A. F. 1957. "The Meaning of the Susanna Story." Canadian Journal of Theology 3: 211-218.

Salomon, Nanette. 2005. "Judging Artemisia: A Baroque Woman in Modern Art History." In The Artemisia Files: Artemisia Gentileschi for Feminists and Other Thinking People, ed. Mieke Bal. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Totaro, Donato. "Psycho Redux." Available from

                                        Giuseppe Di Scipio