“Susanna and the elders” in Italian 17th-century art

Domenichino (ma recentemente attribuito ad Annibale Carracci),

Domenico Zampieri, Domenichino (though recently attributed to Annibale Carracci), "Susanna and the Elders", 1603, oil on table, Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome

The biblical episode of Susanna’s encounter with two elders was a popular theme among Italian artists in the 17th century. The story of how two old men accost and falsely accuse the beautiful, young woman from Babylon – named after the Egyptian word meaning “lotus flower”, a symbol of purity – was represented by a number of painters.

Artemisia Gentileschi (Rome, 1593-Naples, 1653), for example, is attributed at least three paintings on this subject, which she supposedly created between 1610 and 1649. Some critics say she was drawn to the story also because it resonated with facts in her own life, marked by a complicated relationship with her father Orazio, and by her rape by painter Agostino Tassi in 1611.

Here is a gallery dedicated to portraits of Susanna in the 1600s. At the time, her chastity and faithfulness to her husband were embodied, ironically, by extremely sensual women.

February 4, 2015