There is a hierarchy of painting: At the top of the pile is History painting, including narrative religious mythological and allegorical subjects
In this painting, Paris has been asked by the god Zeus to judge who was the most beautiful: Hera, Athena or Aphrodite. Aphrodite bribes Paris with a promise of Helen of Sparta (and later of Troy), wife of the Greek king Menelaus. It is here that the seeds of the Trojan War were first planted.
The other levels are (in order) Portrait painting, Genre painting or scenes of everyday life, Landscape and cityscape, Animal painting and Still life. As result of this hierarchy, that great art, particularly the great of Renaissance is dominated by religious and mythological themes and subjects.
Until most recent times, artist painted for wealthy patrons and their private collections. The wealthy patrons were invariably males and while many had a professed interest in religion, they were also very interested in the female form. So if a religious painting coincidentally included nudity, it was likely to be doubly well-received and rewarded.
The story of Susanna and the Elders is a dead cert ringer to meet both the serious religious themes and occasional nudity criteria. It’s a story of two dirty old men perving on a beautiful young woman while she bathes. They later try to blackmail her into having sex with them. Susannah turns the tables on them and they come to an unpleasant and sticky end. There are a number of scenes in this story that have dramatic interest but they are almost invariably ignored by artists. It’s the naked/nude Susanna bathing that captures everybody’s attention. It is interesting to compare the way that different artists, all men with the exception of Artemisia Gentileschi, have painted Susanna.
A large group of paintings focuses on the point in the story with the elders are watching nude Susanna and she is not aware of them. It is this point in the story that is favoured by Tintoretto.
John Berger wrote in “Ways of Seeing” that :Being naked is just being yourself, but being nude in the artistic sense of the word is being without cloths for the purpose of being looked at.” This is very much the case in the Tintoretto paintings.
Here Tintoretto paints Susanna being attended by her maids with the elders just visible in the top right hand corner of the painting. This allows Tintoretto to focus on the Rubenesque figure of Susanna who looks directly out at, and confronts, the viewer. The golden hue of the nude leads down to the red-gold of the dress of the woman who is attending Suzanna’s feet. These colours lead the viewer’s eye up the stairs to the top right-hand corner where the elders are lurking, their clothing a darker descant on the colour of the’ maids dress.
In the second painting by Tintoretto the focus is still very much on the nude Susanna with the elders still crouching in the bushes.
The beautiful Susanna whose glowing golden body is highlighted by the darker greens of the garden, is admiring herself in a mirror as the strangely decrepit and reptilian elders approach. Like the first painting, this is a nude study clothed in the respectability of a biblical story.
Tintoretto returned to the subject 20 years later.
The only allusion to the biblical story now is the image of the two elders framed in the archway in the top left-hand corner of the picture. This is a nude study complete with a dark smudge of pubic hair slightly covered by the veil across Susanna’s hips. It must have been revolutionary stuff in 1575.