The naked and the nude: Tintoretto’s Susanna and the Elders

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.

The Un (equal) Australian

This morning’s article in The Age makes interesting if rather disturbing reading.

It reports on an address by Mike Berry, emeritus professor at RMIT, where he discussed a book by Thomas Piketty Capital in the Twenty-First Century which is not only 685 page book on economics but also currently top of the bestseller lists.

Piketty’s thesis is that “capitalism inevitably and remorselessly leads to increasing inequality. In short, unless we do something about it, we’re headed back to the 18th-century world of haves and have-nots.” Piketty’s research attacks the conventional wisdom of trickle-down economics and the belief that inequality will decrease as nations’ incomes continue to rise

The article cites the big-business World Economic Forum which believes that income inequality is chief among 31 risks ”threatening social and political stability as well as economic development” in the next decade.

Noble Laureate and Professor Joseph Stiglitz, who was once chief economist with the World Bank, cites the IMF’s agreement with this point of view.

In his book Battlers and Billionaires, ANU economics professor turned federal Labor MP Andrew Leigh attributes the rise in inequality to three forces, : higher earnings at the very top, the decline of unions, and less progressive taxation.

The article states that income tax cuts by the Howard and Rudd governments have cost the government about $170 billion since 2006. Like all across-the-board tax cuts, these cuts have overwhelmingly favoured the rich, as do concessions on superannuation and negative gearing on real estate.

A report by non-profit group Australia21 argues that we would have a stronger economy if the government were to lift pensions and benefits to the poverty line, direct more funding to disadvantaged kids, and end tax breaks for superannuation, capital gains and negative gearing which is pretty much the opposite of what the Abbott government is currently doing.

One of the most controversial measures suggested is that tax rate should become far more progressive. In New Zealand in the 1950s, the top tax rate was 95% and Piketty argues for a top rate of more than 80%.

Stiglitz argues that this is a crisis that requires radical policy changes and certainly the suggestions that are made in the article would bring about a revolution in the way Australians are taxed and the way wealth is distributed.

Unfortunately on this matter, as on the matter of climate change, the country appears to lack the leadership that will wrestle with this problem.

Budget crisis, what budget crisis

News from across the ditch Australian economy is not in trouble, Joe Hockey tells NZ

Instead, Mr Hockey reassured Kiwis that their second biggest trading partner is benefiting from 23 years of consecutive economic growth

And in saying this he has the support of the OECD

Joe Hockey is at pains to explain the budget crisis[

Joe Hockey is at pains to explain the budget crisis[

But hold on, doesn’t 23 years of consecutive economic growth include the eight years when the Labor party was in power? Surely we couldn’t have had economic growth while they were hanging round.

“Joe always starts off very trusting of people – in my opinion sometimes too trusting,’’ his wife Ms Babbage says.

It’s probably also true that people started off trusting Joe. But the budget crisis seems to have been a bit of a porky.

Keeping a grip on entitlement: MPs continue to rort travel expenses

One of the things you fear in old age is losing my grip on reality. So I do have to do a bit of a reality check when I read in The Sunday Age:

Liberal Party MP Jamie Briggs, who was once, but has now vacated his position as, the chairman of the Coalition’s government waste committee (established to highlight the mismanagement of taxpayer money) spent $2800 last November for him and a family member to travel between Adelaide and Melbourne to attend Derby Day in the Emirates marquee.

Mr Biggs is Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development and there is nothing in his portfolio that is related to sport, let alone horseracing. He also flew to Melbourne as a guest of BHP for an AFL match (cost $1600) and to Sydney, where he attended the Australian Open as a guest of Golf Australia (cost $2300).

If we take the Adelaide Melbourne trip as an example, we can see that if Mr Briggs and his family member flew economy class, that accounts for $600 of the $2800. If they flew business class, that would account for the total expenditure. But why would someone who has been chairman of the Coalition’s government waste committee book two business class airfares on a flight that takes 55 minutes when economy class is a fraction of the price?

Well, it’s a question of entitlement. It’s surprising how often this word was used as a justification for the lavish expenditure of federal MPs on taxpayer-funded travel.

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You can always get a bit of a laugh from some of the things that MPs spend their entitlements on.

Queensland Liberal National MP Bert van Manen purchased (inter alia) The Encyclopaedia of Woodworking Technique and 38 copies of Incy Wincy Spider.

Bert, " Incy Wincy Spider " isn't a clapping game, that's " If you're happy and you know it clap your hands

Bert, ” Incy Wincy Spider ” isn’t a clapping game, that’s ” If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands

Now clearly Bert has trouble remembering the words of Incy Wincy Spider but does he need 38 copies to keep his memory of this childhood classic intact?

Recordergate: rustling up a scandal

Last week, The Age ran the following headline: ALP the guilty party.

The article referred to an incident where a tape recording of Ted Ballieu criticising his party was copied, allegedly by senior officials Labour Party and then distributed to members of the Liberal party, allegedly by a right-wing faction within that party.

Brighton Iceberger Ted Baillieu has landed himself in hot (well perhaps only tepid) water

Brighton Iceberger Ted Baillieu has landed himself in hot (well perhaps only tepid) water

The tape recorder belonged to The Sunday Age’s state political editor Farrah Tomazin

Farrah Tomazin dinkus

On the tape, Tomazin is heard saying to Ballieu, “In fact we didn’t even have this conversation.” It’s an interesting side issue that with all the demands from The Age for transparency and openness on the part of the ALP and Daniel Andrews, we have very little explanation of the role that The Age played in this stormy little teacup.

And it was pretty trivial stuff until it was made more important by denials of involvement from Daniel Andrews and veiled threats of impropriety from The Age. Clearly someone is telling porkies. And the Victorian public has a right to think that it is not the Man Who Would Be Premier.

But let’s take a deep breath and look at what is happening. Firstly it is worth keeping in mind what The Age published:

Under section 11 of Victoria’s Surveillance Devices Act it is a crime carrying a maximum two-year jail term to knowingly distribute a recording of a private conversation between other parties without their consent, unless it is in the public interest. It is also regarded as theft not to return property to its rightful owner.

So there are two issues here. The first is: Did someone from the ALP obtain a copy of the recording? This seems pretty likely and constitutes an act of theft and the course of action for Daniel Andrews is quite clear: let the police find out if a crime has been committed, who committed it and then prosecute them.

The second issue is: Who was responsible for copying and distributing the tape? Again, if the story published in The Age is accurate, it would seem that members of both the Labour and Liberal parties took part in this activity. If they did, this is also a criminal offence and the course of action for the leaders of both parties is quite clear: let the police find out if a crime is committed, who committed it and prosecute them.:

It’s disappointing that The Age has opted for ignoring the involvement of the Liberal party choosing instead to focus focusing entirely on the alleged involvement of members of Andrews’ staff.

Dan Andrews: More finger pointing to come

Dan Andrews: More finger pointing to come

The Age is probably drawing a long bow when it suggests that this will destroy the ALP’s chances at the next election but it does reinforce the impression (long held in some quarters) that Daniel Andrews is an electoral liability.

The Time of Our Lives

Last night we saw a wonderful performance from Claudia Karvan, one of the stars of The Time of Our Lives Karvan plays Caroline Tivolli who started out as a rather unlikeable “helicopter mum” characterised by self-preoccupied narcissism which had its outlet in her devotion to his son Carmody.

Caroline Tivoli: Uptight and dangerous

Caroline Tivoli: Uptight and dangerous

She’s almost as unlikeable as her husband Matt played brilliantly by William McInnes. They’re so bad they really deserve each other. It must be difficult to play unsympathetic characters but both of them do it so well.

But last night there was a subtle change in the script for Caroline. She has returned to work as a lawyer and she is working with a senior lawyer who is described by a colleague as “a lady who likes the ladies”. The two are collaborating on a case and when previously heterosexual Caroline finds herself attending a show with her new colleague, her interest and her slight discomfort are absolutely palpable. Karvan captures this perfectly. There is a scene just after she has accepted the invitation from her colleague to attend a function and she stands in front of the mirror assessing the effect of her appearance.

There’s a subtle change in her demeanour in this scene. It opens with her wearing a black leather jacket and a tight-fitting dress. She is a stunningly good-looking woman and she looks very sexy in this shot. Then she takes a phone call and accept the invitation and takes the black leather jacket off. When she looks at herself in the mirror, you can see yourself thinking that perhaps what looks attractive to men might not look so attractive to women and she is wandering how she measures up. She’s obviously never had a date with a woman before and she is beginning to see herself in a new light.

The new Caroline Tivoli: pleased to be starting a new life as a slightly edgy lesbian

The new Caroline Tivoli: pleased to be starting a new life as a slightly edgy lesbian

The interesting thing about the character is that she has lost her snarly self preoccupation and is suddenly beginning to look slightly vulnerable. It’s a masterclass demonstration by Karvan. There is a wonderful shot of her taken from above while she was standing in the courtyard outside her office. She’s looking awkward and slightly vulnerable after a less than satisfactory exchange with the senior colleague. The effect is mainly achieved in by the fact that her feet are pointing slightly inwards so her disappointment and embarrassment are devastatingly clear from her body language. Caroline might be a bitch but until now no one has really got the better of her. It’s going to be interesting times.

He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!

Clive Palmer needs to have a cup of tea, a bex and lie down. He may be the owner of the Palmer United party but he is also only the Member for Fairfax and does not have the right to threaten the Clerk of the Senate, Dr Laing, with High Court action over her ruling on amendments put the Senate by Senator Glenn Lazarus.

Palmer’s attack on Dr Laing was typical of the cloud of hot air and bluster that surrounds him.

”Australian democracy is far more important than this issue. The clerk is supposed to be impartial; if she is not up to the job, resign,” he said.

Clive Palmer on Clerk of the Senate, Dr Latng:  "if she's not up to the job she should resign

Clive Palmer on Clerk of the Senate, Dr Latng: “if she’s not up to the job she should resign

This is not an issue that affects Australian democracy. It’s more about whether the members of PUP understand the Parliamentary processes. It is also about whether Senator’s Lazarus’s amendments constituted a monetary bill which constitutionally cannot not originate in the Senate. On balance, you would probably be inclined to take the opinion of a Parliamentary officer with 25 years experience against that of neophyte parliamentarian with a few weeks of experience.

But the whole thing is typical of Palmer, “if you don’t agree with me, then you not being impartial.” Is good that he didn’t add un-Australian as well. It is inconceivable to Palmer that he could actually be wrong.

And what of Senator Glenn (the brick with eyes) Lazarus? Why didn’t he say something? Surely, the leader of the PUP in the Senate can speak for himself. So far he appears to have limited his oratory to his Parliamentary role.


This is in direct contrast with his mate from political Lala land Senator Jacqui Lambie who is regaling us all with accounts of her sexual preferences and the state of her pubic hair.

But this whole storm in a teacup is indicative of Clive Palmer’s inflated view of his importance in the Parliament. I suspect that he believes he is the leader of the de facto government and as such has the right to initiate legislation. Someone needs to explain to him that he can initiate legislation: in the lower house and given the number of people who turn up to listen when he speaks in that chamber, it’s unlikely to get much support

Making judgement calls

‘I regret nothing’, says Auschwitz selfie teen

It’s a case of “I want to explain to you why what you have done is wrong, but the fact that you have done it means you simply wouldn’t understand.” Sometimes something is so appalling it’s difficult to find words to explain what’s wrong with it.

Often this is because there is a deeply ingrained assumption, or perhaps even prejudice, underlying our condemnation of certain behaviours. Given time, we can always articulate our reasons. In this case, it’s showing that you’re having a good time at the most notorious concentration camp in history will be deeply offensive to many people whose family members or friends died there. Your photograph trivialises those memories.

It’s the same with our Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie, although her radio interview was not as outrageous as ” Princess Breanna’s” foray into social media. I am one of the people who finds Lambie a laughable caricature of what I expect from people who must make decisions that affect the lives of millions of people.

In fact, she is the ultimate anti-politician akin to a political black hole into which all hope of reason and rationality is sucked by some irresistible gravitational force.

Diana Elliott’s defence in The Age is based on the argument that Lambie is not like other politicians (and that’s true) and that makes whatever she does reasonable and acceptable.

What Elliott doesn’t recognise is that the fact that something is broadcast or printed does not make it acceptable, admirable or even important.

While deploring the criticism of “men, feminists, the political elite, male commentators (and) feminists writing PhDs” Eliott sees Lambie’s greatest crimes as “crimes against the English language. “If I can’t let me hair down a little bit and make fun on breakfast radio…”.

Yes Diana, we all have a point at which we draw the line.

From political Lala land: The search for the well hung

Jacqui Lambie has catapulted herself back into the national limelight with her interview on Heart FM in Tasmania. While many of us would consider it pretty unedifying stuff, she will certainly be a big hit with every lad who think he’s a bit of a chance and who will now be emailing dick pic selfies to the senator demonstrating his credentials.

Then she apologised to anybody who may have been offended especially the elderly. Seeking to deflect any criticism by saying:

“Of course my political enemies will make a big deal out of my comments, but the reality is I was talking with Kim and Dave on Heart FM – not Sarah Ferguson on the ABC.”

Actually, Jacqui, it’s not just the elderly who are offended, it’s people with good taste a sense of decorum, and an expectation that our elected representatives, however narrow their electoral base may be, won’t discuss their pubic hair and their sexual preferences on radio.

Sex and power: the sexual predator in art and politics

In recent months, we have been treated to the unedifying spectacle of seeing one of Australia’s most popular entertainers convicted of sexually molesting underage children.

History is full of men in positions of power who have exploited women.

The sexual pecadillos of politicians are a constant source of outrage, amusement and amazement. But it is also true that some women are drawn to powerful men and many politicians are tempted to take advantage of this. In some cases, the relationship is consensual, in some cases it is not. Henry Kissinger famously said that power was the ultimate aphrodisiac. Henry was a bit of a ladies’ man, which is surprising because he was not the best looking bloke on the block but his track record was impressive.

Henry had som pretty good looking girlfriends. You might recognise some

Henry had some pretty good looking girlfriends.

Given that politics is the greatest source of power, particularly for men, it’s not surprising that men in positions of power will take advantage of this and are frequently drawn into sexual relationships that are politically damaging when discovered. Bill “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” Clinton is one of the better known examples of this and JFK was certainly a notorious pants man and probably with better taste than Clinton. He certainly didn’t suffer any public fallout from his relations with other women, most spectacularly Marilyn Monroe.

JFK and Munroe

JFK and Munroe

Anyone who was ever in doubt about the relationship between Kennedy and Munroe should watch the famous “Happy Birthday, Mr President” video clip. Certainly, Jackie Kennedy was in no doubt and reportedly stormed out of the function after Munroe’s singing solo.

Presidential peccadilloes had a nasty habit of surfacing every now and then. Bill Clinton was also a notorious pants man.  Things got really serious and very messy with Monica Lewinsky.bill-clinton-and-monica-lewinski

And there were always stories flying around about other women.


There is also a sly dig at Clinton in the immensely popular film Love Actually where the American president, played by Billy Bob Thornton, propositions one of the British PM’s staff.387368-4d43d21a-45b2-11e3-b6cf-917abbb54065

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Professor of economics at Sciences Po, Minister for Economics, Finances and Industry IMF Managing Director and contender for the French presidency was the unacceptable side of this strange dynamic and his chickens came home to roost when allegations that he had sexually assaulted a hotel maid sank his political career and shone a spotlight on his other sexual peccadilloes

Nafissatou Diallo and Tristane Banon: To the women who have accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of raping them

Nafissatou Diallo and Tristane Banon: Two the women who have accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of raping them

And then most recently we have President-elect Trump who has defined his presidency by saying: ” I just grabbed him by the pussy”, “When you’re a star they let you do it, you can do anything” as well as bragging about using his fame to try and “fuck” women and groping them without waiting for their consent.


Why are we surprised?

Such behaviour stretches back to time immemorial and one of the earliest accounts is from the 13th chapter of the Book of Daniel.

Two Elders, probably judges but certainly powerful and influential members of the community, watch the beautiful young Susannah bathing in her garden. They accost her and threatened to accuse her of committing adultery, for which the penalty is death, unless she has sex with them. She refuses and is brought to trial.

At the trial, the young prophet Daniel cross-examines the two Elders who contradict each other about which tree the act was performed under. Susannah is acquitted and the two elders are put to death.

There are more than 80 extant paintings of the story. Some artists, such Tintoretto and Rubens, painted it a number of times Nearly all of the artists who have painted it have chosen moment when the two elders proposition Susannah.

The elders are shown as wealthy, powerful, respectable and persuasive. In her 1963 book on Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt wrote of the banality of evil. Here we have another aspect, the respectability of evil.

 Bonaventura Lamberti (Il Bolognese)

Bonaventura Lamberti (Il Bolognese)

Susanna and the elders-Ottavio Mario Leoni

Susanna and the elders-Ottavio Mario Leoni

Susanna and the elders1588 Paulo Veronese

Susanna and the elders Paulo Veronese (1588)

Another group of artists paint a different picture. Here the Elders are less respectable and more menacingly evil.

Jacob Jordaens Susanna and the Elders

Jacob Jordaens Susanna and the Elders

Jordaens’ Elders are grotesque caricatures, a personification of evil lechery, while Rubens’ are the personification of anger, presumably at being frustrated by Susannah’s innocence. The veins standing out on the neck of the elder in blue indicates the vehemence with which he is putting his proposition.

Peter Paul Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens

Sisto Badalocchio

Sisto Badalocchio

Badalocchio’s elders are sneeringly contemptuous of their victim and the brilliantly luminescent painting by van Honthorst shows the two elders feigning concern lest Susannah draw attention to them.

Gerrit van Honthorst

Gerrit van Honthorst

In all the versions of the story, there is an undertone of violence in the portrayal of the two elders. In some cases, it is made explicit in the painting. In Alessandro Allure’s work, the physical threat is palpable, with the indignant Susanna already in the lecherous clutches of the Elders.

Alessandro Allori

Alessandro Allori

Similarly in Claude Vignon’s painting one of the elders is already beginning to man-handle Susanna.

Claude Vignon

Claude Vignon

The sense of violation is palpable in both of these paintings and it is a common theme in all of the others. In some, the sexual violence is implied and most audiences would know the back story to the paintings. But one thing that stands out in all the paintings is the sense of violation inherent in the mere presence of these splendidly dressed men in the company of a near naked women. In many of the paintings, Susannah shrinks away from her tormentors, ashamed to have been discovered naked. It’s a powerful depiction of the commonly held view that such situations are somehow the woman’s fault.