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Susanna and the Elders’: A Visual Rhetoric of Sin By: Alexander Kozin

Susanna and the Elders’: A Visual Rhetoric of Sin

By Alexander Kozin[1]




1. Introduction


This study is situated at the juncture between religion and aesthetics with the focus on the visual experience of religion. The study claims that the visual aspects of the canonized religious theme, namely, the late Renaissance academic depiction of ‘Susanna and the Elders,’ which is based on The Holy Bible, ‘Daniel 13,’ disclose the conditions under which the authentic (meta)meaning of the text can be apprehended as relevant for religion. The text of ‘Daniel 13’ tells about Susanna, a young and beautiful wife of a local official that two elders observed while she bathed alone in her garden. Overwhelmed by desire, the elders attempted to seduce Susanna by threatening to expose her immodesty in front of her husband. After Susanna refused to succumb to their demands, she was accused and brought to trial. There, the intervening force of a divine stranger called Daniel, who came to solicit on her behalf, saved her from imminent death and lead to the punishment of the liars (see Appendix I for full text).

               This story had emerged as a recognized academic theme for classical schools of painting in the late Middle Ages and throughout Renaissance. I propose that we analyze this theme by focusing on three visual variations of ‘Susanna and the Elders’ based on ‘Daniel 13’: Tintoretto (1555-1556), Rubens (1601), and Rembrandt (1641). Their close association stipulates the choice of the artists; all three belong to the same European school of painting (Baroque). More important however is their participation in the joint production of a religious work. For the method suitable for the analysis of ‘Susanna and the Elders’, I suggest Gilles Deleuze’s rhetoric of disclosure, which is a method gathered from Francis Bacon: A Logic of Sensation (2004). Drawing from this method, I seek to identify the main religious referent behind the Biblical theme as well as specific rhetorical effects or affectants that present the meta-meaning of the Biblical text.


2. Rhetoric of Disclosure

The main aspects of Deleuze’s visual rhetoric rise from the assumption that an artwork can provide the ground for the appearance of a particular phenomenon; in the case of ‘Francis Bacon,’ this phenomenon is sensation. Not only does Deleuze propose that artists can paint sensation, he also suggests that they can paint sensation as a mode specific to the medium and to the subject, e.g., hysteria. Painting can therefore be affective for the audience in the manner of self-disclosure. The disclosed elements shall be understood as affectants. These include emotions, dispositions, and moods. They too possess a relationality, a meta-relationality, to be precise, which in the case of the classical painting is a narrative about narrative, or a meta logic of narrative affects.

Deleuze’s reading an image for affectants is based on the classical relation between the figure and the background. Deleuze speaks of this relation as figuration. As a relation, figuration belongs to the tropic logic because it utilizes a space of signification (e.g., speech), toward producing a specific effect (e.g., make believe). In the painting, this space is visually organized by ‘positioning’ the figures (both main and attendant) in relation to each other and the surrounding that functions as the background for all: “figuration implies the relationship of an image to an object that is supposed to illustrate, but it also implies the relationship of an image to other images in a composite whole which assigns a specific object to each of them” (Deleuze 2003, 2-3).

In the case of ‘Susanna and the Elders’, we find two types of figurative positionality: a) from-within the image, or and b) in-between images. The former explains the contained matter, while the latter signifies a metal level and a certain meta-logic behind the actual translation of Susanna’s plot from text to image. The positioning of the images within an open series creates a certain affective rhythm that is akin to that of the unfolding narrative.

Each painted image is the high point of this rhythm, its spike. In what follows, I attempt to recover this commentary for ‘Susanna and the Elders.’


3. Visual Analysis

The three selected representations of ‘Susanna and the Elders’ (see Appendix I) are separated by less than one hundred years, which make them belong to roughly the same period of ‘Baroque,’ although in three different regional schools. These differences, along with distinctly individual styles of Tintoretto, Rubens, and Rembrandt, become apparent in the historical line-up of the three images. For the key similarity one can take the centrality of Susanna (always partly nude), although this centrality shifts considerably, depending on the disclosed affect. As attendants (secondary figures), the elders tend to contour around Susanna: at a distance, yet behind and aside, watching Susanna (Tintoretto); startling Susanna (Rubens); trying to grab her as she flees (Rembrandt). They thus form the background for the horizon. In relation to religion, the pre-set configuration of the academic theme is called on to symbolize the deadly sin of coveting. However, when examined across the three images, coveting, or the unwanted secretive desire, is disclosed not universally in the same manner but incrementally by connecting three related affectants toward a diachronically configured affectation that has its own disclosive signifying value. The order of appearance is from the affectant of gazing (Tintoretto) to that of shame (Rubens) to that of witnessing (Rembrandt).

               Tintoretto’s painting is performed in the ornamental style typical for Venetian masters of the early 17th century. The centrality of Susanna places the main emphasis on her nude figure. In this position, she is subject to two perspectives. One kind of gazing comes from the elders who hide behind the bush on both of its sides, surrounding Susanna with their attention. The other belongs to the viewer who is offered the same perspective as the elders, thus being included in the painting by way of gazing only. Gaze therefore becomes the key affectant for the painting. It discloses the first condition for the Biblical story: the God-loving Susanna, who appears innocent and humble, unawares of the pending plot against her.

               In Rubens, the depiction of Susanna seems to elaborate on the preceding image by a different and more textually advanced point of entry. Here, Susanna is depicted in distress humiliated by the violence enforced on her by the elders. Appropriately, the tones, the colours and the movements of the figures, themselves powerful in the physic aspect, enhance the emotional atmosphere of the image. The style of the painting connotes drama. The figures are not separated by the features of the landscape but close up on them; the seducers are right behind, whispering in Susanna’s ear. In contrast to Tintoretto, Rubens’ Susanna is uncomfortably naked; she is ashamed. The onlooker is no longer invited to gaze at Susanna. Rather, shame makes Susanna appear as a victim, evoking the need from the viewer to participate, act on her behalf.

               Rembrandt’s version presents Susanna at yet another point in the story, which is furthered even more. She is depicted far in the background tearing herself away from the elders, fleeing in the very waters that used to symbolize purity, appealing on the strength of her convictions to God. This appeal, which shows no shame, not explicitly anyway, brings about the affectant that culminates the plot of ‘Daniel 13’. When approached in the relation to the spectator, Susanna’s straight unwavering look does not signify an appeal to action or sympathy but an appeal to justice. It comes as the divine justice, for it is God who heard the appeal, and it is him who sent the Daniel to the Israeli people to testify on his behalf. Witnessing and testifying create a memory of the future that comes about mundanely, in the legal resolution of a morality violation.


A question arises, How shall we interpret the meta-relation between the disclosed affectants of ‘gaze,’ ‘shame,’ and ‘justice’ in three visual renditions of ‘Susanna and the Elders’?


4. The Deadly Sin of Coveting

From the religious perspective, all the three paintings deal with the deadly sin of coveting. As an individual contribution to the general theme, they develop the sense of the sin incrementally by way of attributing it first to the secretive gazing, then to the elicitation of shame and finally to the execution of justice. The gaze that brings shame on a person undeservedly deserves to be exposed. This task is given to an angel who is not the punishing angel but the arguing angel, who punishes the corrupt judges by delivering a supreme form of judgment. Therefore, we can understand the three academic paintings as a series and a movement toward the materialization of truth for the practical purposes of the law. I would like to conclude by saying that the analysis of the academic theme ‘Susanna and the Elders’ reveals its rhetorical meaning by disclosing those affectants that end up transforming the Biblical story from a morality tale into a narrative about law and religion.




Deleuze, Gilles. Francis Bacon: The logic of sensation, D.W. Smith (trans). London: Continuum, 2004.









Appendix I. The Holy Bible, ‘Daniel,’ Chapter 13[2]

1 Now there was a man that dwelt in Babylon, and his name was Joakim: 2 And he took a wife, whose name was Susanna, the daughter of Helcias, a very beautiful woman, and one that feared God. 3 For her parents being just, had instructed their daughter according to the law of Moses. 4 Now Joakim was very rich, and had an orchard near his house: and the Jews resorted to him, because he was the most honourable of them all. 5 And there were two of the ancients of the people appointed judges that year, of whom the Lord said: That iniquity came out from Babylon, from the ancient judges that seemed to govern the people. 6 These men frequented the house of Joakim, and all that hand any maters of judgment came to them. 7 And when the people departed away at noon, Susanna went in, and walked in her husband's orchard. 8 And the old men saw her going in every day, and walking: and they were inflamed with lust towards her: 9 And they perverted their own mind, and turned away their eyes, that they might not look unto heaven, nor remember just judgments. 10 So they were both wounded with the love of her, yet they did not make known their grief one to the other. 11 For they were ashamed to declare to one another their lust, being desirous to have to do with her. 12 And they watched carefully every day to see her. And one said to the other. 13 Let us now go home, for it is dinner time. So going out, they departed one from another. 14 And turning back again, they came both to the same place: and asking one another the cause, they acknowledged their lust: and then they agreed together upon a time, when they might find her alone. 15 And it fell out, as they watched a fit day, she went in on a time, as yesterday and the day before, with two maids only, and was desirous to wash herself in the orchard: for it was hot weather. 16 And there was nobody there, but the two old men that had hid themselves, and were beholding her. 17 So she said to the maids: Bring me oil, and washing balls, and shut the doors of the orchard, that I may wash me. 18 And they did as she bade them: and they shut the doors of the orchard, and went out by a back door to fetch what she had commanded them, and they knew not that the elders were hid within. 19 Now when the maids were gone forth, the two elders arose, and ran to her, and said: 20 Behold the doors of the orchard are shut, and nobody seeth us, and we are in love with thee: wherefore consent to us, and lie with us. 21 But if thou wilt not, we will bear witness against thee, that a young man was with thee, and therefore thou didst send away thy maids form thee. 22 Susanna sighed, and said: I am straitened on every side: for if I do this thing, it is death to me: and if I do it not, I shall not escape your hands. 23 But it is better for me to fall into your hands without doing it, than to sin in the sight of the Lord. 24 With that Susanna cried out with a loud voice: and the elders also cried out against her. 25 And one of them ran to the door of the orchard, and opened it. 26 So when the servants of the house heard the cry in the orchard, they rushed in by the back door, to see what was the matter. 27 But after the old men had spoken, the servants were greatly ashamed: for never had there been any such word said of Susanna. 28 And on the next day, when the people were come to Joakim, her husband, the two elders also came full of wicked device against Susanna, to put her to death. 29 And they said before the people: Send to Susanna, daughter of Helcias, the wife of Joakim. And presently they sent. 30 And she came with her parents, and children and all her kindred. 31 Now Susanna was exceeding delicate, and beautiful to behold. 32 But those wicked men commanded that her face should be uncovered, (for she was covered) that so at least they might be satisfied with her beauty. 33 Therefore her friends, and all her acquaintance wept. 34 But the two elders rising up in the midst of the people, laid their hands upon her head. 35 And she weeping, looked up to heaven, for her heart had confidence in the Lord. 36 And the elders said: As we walked in the orchard alone, this woman came in with two maids, and shut the doors of the orchard, and sent away the maids from her. 37 Then a young man that was there hid came to her, and lay with her. 38 But we that were in a corner of the orchard, seeing this wickedness, ran up to them, and we saw them lie together. 39 And him indeed we could not take, because he was stronger than us, and opening the doors, he leaped out: 40 But having taken this woman, we asked who the young man was, but she would not tell us: of this thing we are witnesses. 41 The multitude believed them, as being the elders, and the judges of the people, and they condemned her to death. 42 Then Susanna cried out with a loud voice, and said: O eternal God, who knowest hidden things, who knowest all things before they come to pass, 43 Thou knowest that they have borne false witness against me: and behold I must die, whereas I have done none of these things, which these men have maliciously forged against me. 44 And the Lord heard her voice. 45 And when she was led to be put to death, the Lord raised up the holy spirit of a young boy, whose name was Daniel: 46 And he cried out with a loud voice: I am clear from the blood of this woman. 47 Then all the people turning themselves towards him, said: What meaneth this word that thou hast spoken? 48 But he standing in the midst of them, said: Are ye so foolish, ye children of Israel, that without examination or knowledge of the truth, you have condemned a daughter of Israel? 49 Return to judgment, for they have borne false witness against her. 50 So all the people turned again in haste, and the old men said to him: Come, and sit thou down among us, and show it us: seeing God hath given thee the honour of old age. 51 And Daniel said to the people: Separate these two far from one another, and I will examine them. 52 So when they were put asunder one from the other, he called one of them, and said to him: O thou that art grown old in evil days, now are thy sins come out, which thou hast committed before: 53 In judging unjust judgments, oppressing the innocent, and letting the guilty to go free, whereas the Lord saith: The innocent and the just thou shalt not kill. 54 Now then if thou sawest her, tell me under what tree thou sawest them conversing together: He said: Under a mastic tree. 55 And Daniel said: Well hast thou lied against thy own head: for behold the angel of God having received the sentence of him, shall cut thee in two. 56 And having put him aside, he commanded that the other should come, and he said to him: O thou seed of Chanaan, and not of Juda, beauty hath deceived tee, and lust hath perverted thy heart: 57 Thus did you do to the daughters of Israel, and they for fear conversed with you: but a daughter of Juda would not abide your wickedness. 58 Now, therefore, tell me, under what tree didst thou take them conversing together. And he answered: Under a holm tree. 59 And Daniel said to him: Well hast thou also lied against thy own head: for the angel of the Lord waiteth with a sword to cut thee in two, and to destroy you. 60 With that all the assembly cried out with a loud voice, and they blessed God, who saveth them that trust in him. 61 And they rose up against the two elders, (for Daniel had convicted them of false witness by their own mouth) and they did to them as they had maliciously dealt against their neighbour, 62 To fulfil the law of Moses: and they put them to death, and innocent blood was saved in that day. 63 But Helcias, and his wife, praised God, for their daughter, Susanna, with Joakim, her husband, and all her kindred, because there was no dishonesty found in her. 64 And Daniel became great in the sight of the people from that day, and thence forward. 65 And king Astyages was gathered to his fathers; and Cyrus, the Persian, received his kingdom.













Appendix II. Visual Representations of ‘Susanna and the Elders’




Figure 1. Tintoretto (1555-1556)





Figure 2. Rubens (1601)






Figure 3. Rembrandt (1641)



[1] Alexander V. Kozin is a Research Fellow at Freie Universitaet Berlin. His areas of specialization include phenomenology, ethnomethodology visual and discourse analysis. He is current working on a book project titled, “The Liminal Place of Law.” Email:alex.kozin@gmx.net 

[2] This story of Susanna, in all the ancient Greek and Latin Bibles, was placed in the beginning of the book of Daniel. It was St. Jerome who moved it because he could not find it in the Hebrew text. Nonetheless, it was received by the Catholic Church and became a part of the Christian Bible.


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