The theory but looking back upon paintings
The story of Susanna and the Elders is an addition to the book of Daniel and it is about the story of the beautiful Susanna herself and the elders who gaze upon her. Within this story Susanna, who is the wife to the respected Joakim, is lusted for by two of the elders that work for the Babylonian house. But these two elders have so much lust for Susanna they are conspiring to rape her while she is alone. This story has been used by artists to create pieces for hundreds of years. Tintoretto’s representation is one of the better art pieces of the story so this is why I’ve chosen it to relate to the theme of Gender and the Gaze. In this essay I will be sharing my ideas behind how this image is related to the theme Gender and the Gaze and why other themes may not be.
The main theme that I’m going to explore relating to Susanna and the Elders is gender and the gaze. There are many ways in which it relates to this theme some being more obvious than others. Gender has been one of the key aspects of the gaze and has been used in art to draw attention of both female and male viewers. At the time artists such as Tintoretto, wouldn’t want to paint one women they would want to use different body parts from different women so they could create this sense of the ‘perfect women’ and also so that they weren’t singling out one particular women for being perfect. John Berger suggests “Men dream of women, women dream of themselves being dreamt of. Men look at women and women watch themselves being looked at.” (John Berger, Ways of Seeing: The Male Gaze,video1972). The male gaze is a term that was created in 1970’s feminist theory but looking back upon paintings such as Susanna and the elders that was produced in the 1500’s you can see how artists were already using it in their pieces before a term was created for it. Most paintings of this era uses this idea of the male gaze specifically to attract its viewers and this is the case for Susanna and the elders. As for many of the European paintings of the time, Susanna is positioned in the image as if she is available to men both within the image and us as the viewers but if you relate back to the story Susanna is married and shouldn’t be being viewed as available in this way and especially by the elders who are lusted for Susanna. Susanna is positioned starting to bathe in the pool while admiring herself in a mirror, she is posed like this simply for the easy of viewing and created to be seen as objects of the male gaze. The male gaze is also linked to the elders as they are seen, as we are, viewing Susanna in all her glory. While viewing her we then become one of the elders, spying on her and watching her as she bathes. If you to take away the story of how the elders are lusted for Susanna they would be simply seen as viewers of her and not lusting for her at all. As I mentioned before Susanna is seen staring into a mirror, the mirror is a very significant object within the image and is used in many representations of the story. Mirrors are symbolic because they are also known to symbolise femininity. Although we cannot see Susanna’s reflection we know that that she is viewing herself within it as she is completely oblivious to the elders that are starting to surround her. If you look deeper into this you can start to understand that Susanna is being quite narcissistic as she is admiring herself and her appearance. But she isn’t just being narcissistic, the fact that the elders are lusted for her and want her supports that she is beautiful and isn’t just seen that way by herself but by others as well. The whole idea of the male gaze is how women are sexualised even in a no sexual context but I think that this may not be the case for the story of Susanna as the story talks of how the elders would demand sex with her and if she did not comply then the elders would report to her husband that she was seen having sex with a young man. The elders would then charge her with adultery and try and have her condemned to death. With the background of the story can be seen in a different sense. It can be seen that Susanna isn’t trying to impress anyone but herself and her husband and that the elders are there simply just to get a glimpse of what they are missing out on or can’t have. Even though Susanna has retreated to the pool to be alone she is still under the watchful eye of the elders and I feel like this is the case the majority of the pieces that have been created from the story. No matter where she may go to be alone she never actually is, there is always someone watching her, the elders are so obsessed with her being that they will follow her everywhere and anywhere to fill their lust for her.
In the painting we have been able to see how women were viewed within this era, both by the artist and the audience. Women were the principle subject within the nude era purely for the attention they created and also how different artist’s interpretations come across of the stories that were written. I’ve talked about how gender and the gaze is a significant theme for this painting and for many paintings of it’s era but most importantly how the male gaze, although quite a recent term, has been used to gain attention of the viewers.