“Susanna and the elders” in Italian 16th-century art

Lorenzo Lotto,

Lorenzo Lotto, "Susanna and the Elders", 1517, oil on table, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Now Susanna was exceeding delicate, and beautiful to behold: the Book of Daniel (13:31) tells the story of this God-fearing woman, unfairly accused by two powerful and dishonest elderly judges of cheating on her husband with another man.

According to the Old Testament, Susanna was about to be sentenced to death for adultery when Daniel, a young man inspired by God, suddenly revealed the truth, exposing the two liars and telling everybody that they had molested and blackmailed the innocent woman. They had surprised her alone while she was bathing in her home’s garden, and threatened her to publicly accuse her of betraying her husband if she did not consent to their perverted passion. Susanna, loyal to her husband, had rebuffed the threats and screamed for help. Unable to subdue her, the terrible judges decided to take revenge. Only the young prophet Daniel could come to Susanna’s rescue, and make their plan backfire: in the end, the two elders were sentenced to death.

The biblical episode inspired artists since the very early years of Christianity, but was especially popular among European painters in the 16th and 17th centuries. Indeed, in those years there was a flourishing of renditions of the theme known as “Susanna and the Elders”.

Many Italians – from Paolo Veronese to Guido Reni, from Tintoretto to Artemisia Gentileschi, from Lorenzo Lotto to Ludovico Carracci – tried their talented hand at portraying the chaste Susanna, and the two wicked men as they spy on and approach her.

Here is a selection of these works from the 16th century.

February 3, 2015