Upon visiting the paintings at the National Gallery in London, three paintings referring to the story of Susanna and the elders sparked my interest. In order to understand the story behind the painting I must summarize a few of the main points. Basically, while bathing in her garden two lustful elders secretly observe Susanna. The two lecherous voyeurs approach Susanna and say they will accuse her of adultery unless she has sex with them. Due to Susanna’s virtues and beliefs, she refused to be extorted. However, unfortunately, she was arrested due to her resistance to be blackmailed by these two old perverts. Luckily, in the end, she was found innocent and the two elders were put to death for making false accusations against Susanna. The moral of the story celebrates the triumph of innocent virtue over villainy.
The facial expression in the Guido Reni painting looks at the event from a more feminine perspective. This painting does not portray the victim as a shy, coy, vulnerable, or flirtatious woman as it’s usually depicted by male artists like Ludovico Carracci. According to Berger (1977) most nude paintings of women were made for the male spectator because the ideal spectator is always assumed to be male. Although vulnerability can be seen through the facial expressions in both paintings, Reni illustrates and illuminates Susanna’s fear, repulsion, and disgust at the demands of the two elders looming over her shoulder. As a result, this is one of the few Susanna paintings showing the sexual assault by the elders as a traumatic event.
Although this painting by Francesco Hayez tells the same story of Susanna, the two elders are not shown in this piece. The reason for not including the two elders was in order to illustrate the scene when Susanna realizes the two lurking elders have been spying on her from afar. Although the two elders are not shown in the painting, you know they are there because of her accusatory facial expression as she’s looking over her shoulder and catches an eye of her voyeurs. One can only imagine the death sate she is about to give to the two elders.
The most incredible aspect of this painting is her eyes, while looking at the painting you feel as if she is staring right through you. Furthermore, when you look at her, you start to feel as if you are as guilty as the two elders for admiring her pale naked skin. Susanna is aware of being seen by the spectators and realizes she’s an object of vision or a sight/ spectacle.