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Art and Images in Psychiatry
September 1, 2008

Susanna and the Elders

Author Affiliations

James C.HarrisMD

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2008;65(9):992. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.65.9.992

Artemisia has in three years become so skilled that I can venture to say that today she has no peer; indeed, she has produced works which demonstrate a level of understanding that perhaps even the principal masters of the profession have not attained. . . . 1(p20)—Orazio Gentileschi to the Dowager Grand Duchess of Tuscany, July 3, 1612

I will say no more, except what I have on my mind, . . . that you will find the spirit of Caesar in this soul of a woman.—Artemisia Gentileschi to Don Antonio Ruffo, November 13, 16492(p397)

Early in 1612, Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639) petitioned Pope Paul V, seeking the prosecution of Agostino Tassi (1578-1644) for sexual assault:

Most Holy Father, Orazio Gentileschi, painter, most humble servant of Your Holiness, respectfully reports to You how, through Madame Tuzia his tenant, and as a result of her complicity, a daughter of the plaintiff has been deflowered by force and carnally known many, many times by Agostino Tassi, painter. . . . 2(p410)

Although Artemisia was raped, the charge was not rape but forceful “defloration” that robbed his now 17-year-old daughter of her virginity and ruined her prospects for a respectable marriage. The sexual assault occurred 10 months earlier in May 1611, but Orazio delayed pressing charges, hoping to work out an arrangement with Tassi, who initially had promised to marry Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652) but later refused. Tassi denied that he had sexual relations with Artemisia and accused her of being a whore and having sex with many men; at the trial, he called false witnesses to attest to this. The verbatim transcript of the trial is available to modern readers in the Vatican archives.2

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652), Italian. Susanna and the Elders, 1610. Oil on canvas, 66⅞ × 46⅞ in (170 × 119 cm). Collection Graf von Schönborn, Pommersfelden, Germany. Photo: akg-images/Electa, London, England.

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652), Italian. Susanna and the Elders, 1610. Oil on canvas, 66⅞ × 46⅞ in (170 × 119 cm). Collection Graf von Schönborn, Pommersfelden, Germany. Photo: akg-images/Electa, London, England.

Recognizing his daughter's talent (epigraph), Orazio had engaged Tassi, a master of perspective, to teach his daughter. Her mother had died when she was 12 years old, and a neighbor, Tuzia Medaglia, served as her chaperone; Tuzia was charged with neglecting her duties in Orazio's petition. Tassi remained in jail for 8 months throughout the trial. Artemisia was examined by 2 midwives, who both agreed that she was no longer a virgin. Her own testimony was taken privately and recorded on March 18, 1612. Later her testimony was repeated in Tassi's presence at the prison. Thus confronted, he again denied having sexual relations with her, leading Artemisia to voluntarily submit to the sibille (named for the Delphic Sybil, the truth teller), a device that was used as a lie detector. Her hands were placed together and cords were intertwined around her fingers and tightened using a running string to elicit pain. This took courage for an aspiring artist because her fingers could be permanently damaged. Despite the pain inflicted, she never wavered, insisting: “It is true, it is true, it is true, everything I said is true.”2(p462)She testified that she resisted his sexual attack, that she was menstruating and tried to fight him off, and that afterwards she threw a knife at his chest. She testified that she resisted less over the ensuing months because of his constant promises to marry her.

Tassi's colleague testified that Tassi admitted to him that he deflowered Artemisia. Tassi had a long history of violence: he had served a term on a Roman galley, been prosecuted for having sex with his wife's sister but acquitted, and been accused of arranging for his wife to be murdered. Ultimately Tassi was found guilty and Artemisia's reputation was restored.3(p125,126)Tassi was sentenced to banishment for 5 years, a punishment that was short-lived; within 2 years, he was decorating the homes of prominent clergy near Rome.

Susanna and the Elders(1610), Artemisia's earliest signed work, has been linked to her life experience. Although the painting was commissioned and the subject not chosen by her, Artemisia's emotional experiences may have influenced its execution. Susanna and the elders are the people involved in an apocryphal biblical parable from the book of Daniel (chapter 13) about a virtuous married woman spied on by 2 lascivious elders while bathing in her garden. When she refused their sexual advances, they claimed that they had witnessed her in an adulterous relationship with a young man and she was condemned to death. In answer to her prayers, Daniel is inspired to come to her aid and proves the elders lied; the elders are put to death for false testimony.

Susanna's story has been used to illustrate marital fidelity in art since early Christian times. Artemisia's Susanna and the Elders(cover), showing a young woman resisting the sexual advances of 2 older men, was completed before the rape; however, it is possible that she was being sexually harassed while working on it. Whether she was or not, her Susanna is shown, unlike versions by most male artists, from the perspective of an anxious and anguished adolescent girl, and not, as other artists have portrayed her, as the sexually provocative woman the elders might have imagined. Although signed by her, the painting is thought to be a joint effort with her father,4emulating the bold and dramatic style of his friend the painter Caravaggio.

After the trial, Artemisia married Pierantonio Stiattesi and moved with him to Florence, where, in 1616 at age 23 years, she became the first female official member of the Florentine Academy of the Art of Design. She corresponded with Galileo Galilei and had the support of many patrons in Florence, including the Medici family.

Virginity at the time of marriage continues to be a cultural issue and debated, particularly in Europe, where hymenoplasty, the restoration of the hymen, is readily available to produce the illusion of virginity.5Today in some parts of the world, women still face the ordeal that Artemisia Gentileschi endured.

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