Lorenzo Lotto - Susanna in the Bath

by Alexandra Tuschka


Susanna goes with her servants into her garden to bathe. She does not notice that she has been secretly observed by two lecherous judges for several days. Together, they decide to make Susanna sexually compliant through blackmail. They seize the opportunity when the servants leave to close the gate to the garden and approach her. However, the God-fearing girl, moreover wife of the respected Babylonian Jew Joakim, refuses the men. "I would rather die than sin against God" She begins to scream, but the men also begin to alert the surrounding area. They tell the rushing men that they have seen Susanna pleasuring herself with another man. Due to these false accusations, the girl is condemned to death. Thanks to a divine inspiration, the young man Daniel, who attends the trial, recognizes the true culprits and is able to convict the judges by questioning them separately. In the end, they are stoned to death.

It was Lorenzo Lotto's early work of 1517 that ushered in a groundbreaking change in the iconography of the Susanna figure, which until then had mostly served in cyclical representation as a prime example of a godly and respectable woman. Here the painter gave her a subtly seductive touch. The closeness of the work to the medieval cycles can be seen through numerous narrative moments.


In the background of the painting, one can recognize the city architecture with its extensive gardens; in the foreground, the viewer gets a glimpse of the bath. Susanna squats in the lower left corner of the picture and covers her naked body with her clothes. The posture assumed here goes back to the ancient statue of the "bending Venus" and was to remain a prototype of Susanna until the Baroque period. The front scene is almost hermetically sealed by a wall. This symbolic isolation stands for the chastity of the sitter and comes from the iconography of Mary.


Lotto remains faithful to the apocryphal text. On the right of the picture are the two judges, who have already loudly proclaimed their accusations; through the open gate two more men come rushing to investigate the supposed alarm. The narrative character is underlined by the scrolls that Susanna and one of the judges hold in their hands.


The viewer's gaze follows the clear narrative arc through the picture: Joakim's house in the background leads along the easily recognizable paths through the gardens to the bath. While here the man in front in red still seems to want to convince the helpless girl, the other man already underlines his accusations with a pointing gesture to the sky, hinting at the coming condemnation. Lotto's directional painting was the first to allow the narrative to step out of the marginal realm of art. The character of seduction suggested here then took on a life of its own in the 16th century. Increasingly, the Susanna theme took on erotic features and the men became more lustful and demanding in their depiction; the paintings were stripped of disturbing narrative elements.


Lorenzo Lotto - Susanna in the Bath

Oil on canvas, 1517, 66 × 51 cm, Gallery of the Uffizi in Florence