The moral ambiguity of Alessandro Allori’s Susanna and the Elders

Perhaps the most confrontational and in many ways morally ambiguous painting of Susanna is by Alessandro Allori. The confrontational aspect is the Elders’ assault on Susanna which is portrayed in graphic and symbolic detail. The moral ambiguity comes in the great beauty of the painting itself. This Susanna is probably one of the most beautiful of all of the depictions and it sets up an immediate tension between what was being portrayed and our appreciation of the painting.

Susanna and The Elders

The first thing that we notice about this painting is the luminescent quality of the nude Susanna. The light that falls on her body makes her the focal centre of the painting. Her body is contorted as she twists around to face one of her tormentors. As she does this, the second Elder’s face fits into the contours of her body as he slides his hand between her legs. These are two stark images of penetration and add to the confrontational nature of the painting.

Despite this, Susanna’s attention is fixed on the other elder who has grasped her wrist and is turning her around, exposing her to the viewers gaze. Clearly what he is saying is more important than what the other elder is doing. Despite all this, Susanna is digging her fingernails into the face and head of both of her antagonists. The physical force and power of their assault on her is shown clearly in the way in which Allori details the muscles in their arms and legs. Their bodies are in brute contrast to the smooth beauty of Susanna.

In the background there is a bowl of fruit: apples and pears which symbolized marital faith and apples which symbolised carnal pleasures and sin, the original “forbidden fruit”. The fruit symbolises the choices that Susanna has: remain faithful to her husband or submit to the importunity is of the Elders. The dog, which symbolises faithfulness and in particular marital fidelity, appears to be trying to get out of the way.

From the perspective of the 21st-century, it is difficult to understand how a painting like this would be regarded by the very small and select group of men who would have been allowed to view it some 500 years ago. Many would have undoubtedly believed that any woman who was naked in her garden was inherently inviting sexual advances. The expression on the elder’s face has “you’ve got this coming to you” written all over it.

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This serves to emphasise the vulnerability of Susanna and the positioning of the elders hands on her wrist, head, around her waist and between her legs seemed to indicate that we are witnessing the first stages of a rape scene. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the viewers’ appreciation of the beauty of the nude make them somehow complicit in the crime.

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