Susannah: from biblical heroine to pop pornstar

The story of Susannah and the Elders has been portrayed by hundreds of painters including Tintoretto, Rubens and the Picasso. The interpretation of the story has shifted over five centuries. The classical depiction highlighted the assault of the Elders on the chaste Susannah and in many cases saw her hemmed in and trapped by these lascivious men.

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In Lamberti’s painting the arms of the Elders form a pincer around Susannah, their faces are remarkably descriptive of what they are saying. In Pompeobatoni’s painting one of the elders looms over Susannah as he points to the tree where they will accuse her of committing adultery.

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These two particular paintings form a body of work which focuses on Susannah’s reaction to the proposition that the elders are put to her: either commit adultery with them or be accused of committing adultery with someone else. In those days, the penalty for a woman for committing adultery was death by stoning. Her shock and disbelief at this repugnant suggestion are obvious in all of these paintings. Many of these paintings also depict Susannah looking to heaven for guidance and inspiration

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The body of work that these paintings represent focuses on the “naked” Susannah and her response to the elders. But there is another contemporaneous body of work that focuses on the “nude” Susannah. These paintings capture the moment before the elders approach and while Susanna is bathing in her garden. Here the emphasis is far more on Susanna’s sensual beauty and her pleasure in bathing. This particular moment was one that Tintoretto captured in a number of his paintings.

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Over time, there has been an increasing emphasis on the sensuality of the central character as successive ages every interpreted this particular moment in the light of the artistic perspectives and social attitudes of their particular times. The emphasis moves away from the religious themes the painting towards the sensual beauty of the heroine.

Théodore Chassériau, a 19th-century painter, captures Susannah’s powerful sensual beauty in his depiction.

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Chassériau’s depiction of Susannah can be seen in the context of two of his other paintings female nudes.

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In Pierre van Hanselaere’s painting the emphasis is very much on the delicate skin tones of the central figure.

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This subtle shift of perspective adds a new dimension to the way we view these paintings. Susannah becomes objectified as the religious connotations of the story begin to fade and the emphasis shifts to her physical beauty. This has the effect of making the modern viewer of the paintings a voyeur just like the elders in the biblical story and this idea is backed up by many of the artists. We see, as they saw, the sexual and sensual beauty of the heroine. We’re not complicit in the crime that they committed unless we believe, like President Jimmy Carter, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. (Matthew 5:28). Poor old Jimmy, he got into a lot of trouble for that and was a pretty stupid thing to say, well at least for an ex-president. But it was a refreshingly honest assessment compared with Buba Clinton’s assertion “I did not have sex with that woman.”

The idea of the viewer as voyeur is captured admirably in this self-referential photograph (from a New York Times review) of two men looking at two men looking at a painting of two men looking at a woman.

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There is a series of paintings, mainly from the 19th century which emphasise the erotic beauty of Susannah. Jean-Jacques Henner’s painting emphasises Susannah’s lush sensuality against the dark forest in which the elders lurk. The portrayal here is of a passive and submissive woman, a sexual stereotype of the time.

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Eugene Ansen Hofmann uses soft flesh tones to highlight the sensuality of the bath scene. Susannah’s sensual beauty is contrast to the gnome like appearance of the elders.

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Again it is useful to see the portrayal of Susannah in the light of the artist’s other works. Old Eugene a was pretty keen on the idea of the submissive woman being forcibly carried off into some form of sexual slavery, usually accompanied by someone of middle eastern looks.

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It’s probably fair to say that you wouldn’t go to Hoffman if you’re interested in studying religious themes in art, it’s more about male fantasies of dominance and sexual slavery.

Ebenezer Crawford again emphasises the passive sensuality of Susannah in a painting where the elders have all but disappeared into the background. This Susannah is very much aware of her beauty and The emphasis has turned, this particular painting, to Susannah’s carefully detailed nipples and blush of pubic hair. It’s Victorian soft core porn at its best.

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And so is the version by van Stuck, where Susannah looks over her shoulder towards the elders while modestly protecting herself from the gaze of the onlooker.

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It’s all very cute and reminiscent of the two paintings, La Cigale (in the NGV) and Chloe (at Young and Jacksons) by Jules-Joseph Lefebvre.

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Twentieth century versions of the story place Susannah in a more modern context. Igor Samsonov’s Susannah is a figure symbolising peace set against a bureaucratic and militaristic backdrop. The male figures in the background formally dressed in military uniforms and Susannah herself is a formal and symmetric figure, naked from the waist down rather than traditionally from the waist up.

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This particular formalism is characteristic of Samsonov’s work where his women subjects appear to be participants, willing or otherwise in some formal ritual.

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In another version of the story by Samsonov, Susannah is a slender anorexic young nude being observed by a group of seemingly disapproving elders.

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These paintings seem to drain the sexuality out of the central figure and place them in the social and political context which defines the role of woman in some ritualistic and formally passive relationship with male authority figures.

There are two interesting versions by American painter Thomas Hart Benton who was painting in the 1930s. The first painting created a stir in 1938 when it was first displayed; a retelling of a Biblical story but featuring a nude with clearly depicted pubic hair, was a little over the top for the good god-fearing folk in Kansas City.

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He is also painted another version which typifies the approach that is taken in the 20th century and the shift in emphasis in the portrayal of Susannah.

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This pose would later be recaptured by one of the great beauties the 1950s and 1960s in a series of cheesecake photographs.

Marilyn Monroe from her series entitled "Red Velvet"

Marilyn Monroe from her series entitled “Red Velvet”

The comparison of these two images serves to emphasise the shift towards the portrayal of the narcissistic element in Susannah. This is a woman who likes posing for men and this change of emphasis represents a significant shift away from the original story.

Ben Morales Correa wrotes “In my own concept of Susanna and the Elders, I synthesized the essential formal elements of the subject within the context of present day perceptions of the nude female body. The old men are mere faces, half hidden behind the body of their prey. A few leaves on the upper left suggest the garden setting. A single drop running down Susana’s torso, with its erotical charge, is enough to imply the bathing ritual. The lilies tattooed on her abdomen are symbolic of her name, Susanna, from which the Spanish name of the flower (azucena) is derived. As for the lady herself, only the intimate aspects of Susanna are represented, and this with utmost realism, as if we as spectators are also participating in the voyeurism act. The image is life size in the actual painting, adding to the illusion of physical presence. The two faces look at us with opposite expressions, one inviting us to join in the invasion of privacy and the other with somber shame.”

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Eoin Laeatar’s (1955)portrayal also makes the viewer complicit in the elders voyeuristic act. Here Susannah is in the act of covering, or uncovering herself, and her gaze appears to be confronting the viewer, almost daring him to look.

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There is a subtle shift in the relationship between Susanna and the elders in the next image. The three appear to be meeting in a bar and negotiating some deal which does not appear to be at all abhorrent to Susannah.

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This is a powerful and such subtle rendition of the original story. There are suggestions in many of the earlier paintings that Susannah was offered money and jewellery to have sex with the two elders. This appears to be the case here but from the expression on Susanna’s face appears that she is very much in control and slightly amused by what was going on. The emphasis has now shifted to the woman controlling the situation and exploiting it to her benefit.

This is also an interesting painting in that, without its title, the viewer would be hard-pressed to recognise it as a portrayal of Susannah. Once we understand the reference, it is easy to interpret the painting but without knowledge of the backstory this could be a painting of any transaction in a bar between two old men and an attractive young woman. The back story allows us to provide the overlay of meaning of the shift in the power balance between Suzanne and the two elders.

The idea of this trans-action is also the central theme of Alexander Gurevich’s portrayal where Susannah is seen as a dancer in a bar performing for the rich and powerful.

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The emphasis on Susannah’s sexuality is explored in a portrayal where the central figure is a male, surrounded by the business suit he has just shed as he begins dressing as a female.

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The next portrayal of Susannah is perhaps the one that heaps the greatest indignity on the biblical heroine. Jayson Bimber’s autobiographical note says that all His current work employs appropriated imagery from magazines, weekly advertisements, and the web to comment on imaging in the media and art history. Jayson really likes soccer, bikes, hot dogs and whiskey.

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As a concluding commentary on the extent dead artist strength form that biblical story to their own specific context, there are two paintings by Arthur Boyd with Susannah and the elders have been transferred to an Australian context and are typical figures from Boyd paintings.

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See also

The naked and the nude: Tintoretto’s Susanna and the Elders

The moral ambiguity of Alessandro Allori’s Susanna and the Elders

Sex and power: the sexual predator in art