A Story of Sexual Blackmail From the Old Testament

Susanna and the Elders by Peruvian artist Ivan Fernandez- Davila

Susanna is a Biblical character you may not have heard about because she is introduced in a chapter of the Book of Daniel that has been removed from many versions of the Old Testament. The story appears in Greek translations of the Bible. Susanna stood up to a pair of men in authority who were threatening to sexually blackmail her.

Susanna and the Elders by African American artist Robert Colescott- 1980

Susanna was a wife, mother, and daughter well thought of in her community. She had a secluded garden spot in her back yard where she took a bath each day with her maids in attendance.  Two church elders began to spy on her regularly. One day when her maids went into the house on an errand, the elders came out of hiding and confronted Susanna. They told her either she had to have sex with both of them or they would publicly accuse her of having done so.

Susanna and the Elders by Israeli artist Alexander Gurevich

The elders thought they had Susanna backed into a corner but she didn’t give in to their demand and refused to have sex with them. The religious men carried through on their threat and falsely and publicly accused her of infidelity. Susanna was brought to court. She insisted on telling the truth about what had happened. No one believed her and she was led away to be stoned to death for committing adultery.

The Judgement of Daniel or the Innocence of Susanna by Valentin de Boulogne1630s

Then Daniel, a young lawyer at the time, came forward to defend her and by questioning the elders exposed the inconsistencies in their individual versions of events. Susanna was set free and her accusers were brought to justice for misusing the power of their position.

Alfred Hitchcock explains the use of a Susanna and the Elders painting in his movie Psycho

I first discovered Susanna’s story while doing a film study of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Psycho with my high school literature students. A painting depicting the Susanna story plays an important role in the film. Norman, the villain of the movie, is spying on a woman taking a shower. He looks at her through a peep-hole in the wall of the motel room adjoining hers that he exposes by moving a Franz van Miris painting of Susanna.  Like the elders in the Biblical story, Norman is spying on a woman bathing.

When Dave and I were touring a former spa in Rotorua New Zealand I took this photograph of a statue of Susanna created by Australian artist, Charles Summers. Given the fact that Susanna is bathing in the Biblical story, she was a fitting choice as a subject for a statue in a bathhouse. 

Susanna and the Elders by Lorenzo Lotto- 1517

Visiting Florence, Italy I found out just how popular the Susanna story was in the Renaissance. In the famed Uffizi art gallery, we saw three different paintings of her by artists Lorenzo Lotto, Giovanni Piazzetta, and Cristofano Allori.  When Dave and I visited the Städel Gallery in Frankfurt Germany we saw another painting of Susanna by Massimo Stanzione.

Susanna and the Elders by Marc Chagall-1912
Susanna and the Elders by the photographic Ukrainian artist Irene Caesar-2015

If you search online you will find literally hundreds of depictions of Susanna done by artists from around the world over the last six centuries. It demonstrates the way her story has left an indelible impression.

Walking through the Pitti Palace, in Florence Italy, I took a picture of a sculpture of Susanna by Odoardo Fantacchiotti. I didn’t realize till I loaded the photo onto my computer that the statue is situated in front of a mirror. An image of me taking the photo was reflected there.  Seeing myself in the picture of Susanna’s statue made me wonder whether I’d have had her courage and resolve.

Other posts……….

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The Daughters of Zelophehad

Meet Priscilla

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