A young woman crouches in the bottom right-hand corner, trying to cover her nakedness with her cloak, while two bearded men leer at her and pull at her clothes. This is Susannah, an Old Testament heroine. Bathing one hot day in her husband’s garden, she was seen by two elders – senior members of the Jewish community – who threatened to accuse her of adultery if she did not sleep with them.
The subject was popular with collectors of the period as it offered an excuse for depicting a partly clothed female figure who could be admired without too much guilt. This is a late work by Ludovico, cousin of Agostino and Annibale Carracci. His composition and lighting dramatise the scene. Susannah is brightly lit, emphasising her moral superiority to the shadowy elders and the figures are crammed together and seen close up, adding to the intensity of the scene.
A young woman crouches in the bottom right-hand corner, trying to cover her nakedness with her cloak, while two bearded men leer at her and pull at her clothes. This is Susannah, a beautiful and virtuous Old Testament heroine. According to apocryphal additions to the Book of Daniel, Susannah was bathing in her husband’s garden on a hot day – water drips from a classical fountain in the top right of this painting – when she was seen by two elders, senior members of the Jewish community, who threatened to accuse her of adultery if she did not sleep with them. Susannah refused, and was sentenced to death. She was saved when Daniel defended her and showed that the elders‘ stories did not match. They were executed instead and Susannah found innocent.
The subject was popular with collectors of the period as it offered an excuse for depicting a voluptuous, partly clothed female figure who could be admired without too many pangs of guilt. It was painted by many Italian Baroque artists including the Carraccis, Guido Reni (see his Susannah and the Elders), Guercino and Artemisia Gentileschi, who returned to the theme repeatedly throughout her career.
Ludovico Carracci must have known his cousin Annibale Carracci’s 1595 etching of the subject, in which the figures are arranged along a similar diagonal, though in reverse. In a painting of the subject by Annibale (now in the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, Rome), which was also hugely influential on later depictions, one elder pulls at Susannah’s clothing while the other climbs over the balustrade to get at her.
Ludovico’s unbalanced composition and contrasted lighting has produced a more dramatic scene than his cousin’s calmer depiction. The garden setting has been reduced to its bare essentials of a few trees, a fountain and a classical pedestal, although Susannah’s predicament is subtly alluded to by the fountain in the form of a naked boy wrestling a serpent. A strong light falls both on her naked back and on the hands of her would-be seducers as they reach out towards her. The lighting emphasises the moral difference between the vulnerable but virtuous woman and the wicked elders: her smooth, brightly lit flesh contrasts with their shadowy, bearded faces and wrinkled clothes.
The monumental figures are crammed together and seen close up, adding intensity to the scene: the characters are united in an emotional storm of illicit desire and repulsion. The diagonal slant of Susannah’s body is echoed by that of the leading elder, who stretches out his fingers to almost – but not quite – touch their victim. Susannah leans forward and to the right, clutching modestly at her robe which seems to be slipping through her fingers, while the elder in the background grabs at it, leaning his whole body backwards to add weight to his efforts to disrobe her. The hand gestures and the movement of the bodies in opposite directions create a palpable sense of threat and fear.
This is one of Ludovico’s later works. We know from the signature and date – on the balustrade in the lower left corner ’LUD CAR BO PIN 1616' – that this picture was painted for Cavalier Tito Busio of Reggio. In a letter of 14 June 1616, Ludovico mentions that it is almost finished and just five days later it was completed, and dispatched to its patron.
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