Susanna Bathing by Jacopo Tintoretto

Jacopo Tintoretto

Susanna Bathing, c.1555–56, Oil on canvas, 146 x 193.6 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Picture Gallery, 1530, Photo: Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

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Love’s Look

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Like the Song of Solomon, the story of Susanna offers us a beautiful woman in a biblical garden—a figure whose story was attached to the book of Daniel in Jewish antiquity. As in many artistic responses to the Song, here too a fountain springs into a pool, birds sing, deer play; there are green trees, roses, a secret leafy bower. Susanna’s story in Daniel 13:19–21 even works like a midrash on the Song: Susanna/shoshanna means ‘lily’, and the rabbis liken Susanna to the ‘lily between thorns’ of Song 2:2, caught between two lecherous elders who spy on her and try to blackmail her (Fisch 1996: 35–41).

But the elders’ illicit viewpoint is relativized in Jacopo Tintoretto’s painting: they are awkwardly skewered by the trellis between them, like ugly bugs in paradise. The powerful perspective here is Susanna’s own, like the unbearably strong glance of the woman in Song 4:4. The woman of the Song saturates what she wears with her own self: the flash of her eyes radiates out from her jewels (4:9), her love vaporizes in the scent of her perfume (v.10), and the smell of her clothes is sweet like the taste of her mouth (v.11).

Just so, Susanna’s subjectivity seems to be the organizing consciousness within Tintoretto’s painting. The things within the sphere of her senses come into granular relief: curls of smoke drift up from her incense burner, her gems emit a dull gleam, her comb and lace resolve into acute detail. We are invited to feel the water and sunlight on Susanna’s body. When the woman of the Song eventually speaks (4:16), she commands the wind on her skin, drawing us inside her own sensations in the same way.

And like the woman of the Song, Tintoretto’s Susanna is in the garden of her lover—her husband Joakim. As she looks into the mirror, nested within her own sight of herself is another viewer, in her mind’s eye. This is the look of the husband for whom she prepares herself in this toilette scene (Apostolos-Cappadona 1998). That anticipated look is one both given and received (Exum 2005: 22): the domestic eroticism of Tintoretto’s painting is much more like the mutual gaze of lovers in the Song than it is like the voyeurism of the elders.

 

References

Apostolos-Cappadona, Diane. 1998. ‘Toilet Scenes’, in Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography, ed. by Helene E. Roberts, vol. 2 (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn): 869–74

Exum, Cheryl. 2005. Song of Songs: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox).

Fisch, Harold. 1996. ‘Susanna as Parable’, in The Judgment of Susanna: Authority and Witness, ed. by Ellen Spolsky (Atlanta: Scholars Press), pp. 35–41


 


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