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Rembrandt - 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. These false accusations condemn the girl 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.

In the small-format painting in The Hague, Rembrandt shows Susanna centered and almost filling the picture. For his motif he chose an intermediate moment never depicted before. The girl seems frightened and tries to cover her shame and her breast. Susanna is almost naked, but she has not yet taken off her jewelry. A pearl necklace hangs around her neck, bracelets with two more rows of pearls adorn both wrists; she also wears a braided band on her head. Susanna has laid her red velvet coat over a wall.

As she does so, she steps on her slippers - a play on words, since in the Netherlands at that time the shoe stood pejoratively for the female genitals. Susanna wanted to get into the bath; she has carefully laid down her clothes on a mound; her loose hair reveals a reddish sheen. Water is only lightly suggested in the lower left edge of the picture. There, a break in the wall architecture signals the opening to the bathroom. The metal vase on the wall projection corresponds with the castle architecture in the background.

But she is not alone - in the ramifications of the bushes, on closer inspection, the judges can be made out, who are still secretly watching the girl. Susanna is thus in no way frightened by the men's attack - rather, she refuses the lustful glances of the viewers in front of the canvas. The moment depicted here is only possible because the viewer interrupts the men's attack - the painting depends on his participation.

Rembrandt's Susanna shows a woman in fear, who, frightened, tries to evade the strange gazes from outside and does not, like the Susannas of the other artists, expose herself to them. Not only the different levels of the viewer's role, but the entire Susanna iconography is questioned. In this way she approaches her literary model and truly embodies the chaste and innocent woman of whom the source tells. Susanna's helplessness therefore refers not only to the situation depicted, but also to her role on the screen. She was made an object of desire.

Rembrandt - Susanna in the Bath

Oil on canvas, 1636, 47 × 39 cm, Mauritshuis in The Hague


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