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'Susannah and the Elders', by the Master of Apollo and Daphne (about 1490)


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About the artwork

When you visit an art gallery, most paintings you see are rectangular. Most are set into frames and glazed. Many of them were originally intended to be seen in a very different way to that in which they are now viewed. The majority did not originally have the frames that they now have, or the glass. Some of them are parts of pictures. Some are private pictures and some public. Some are parts of a series of pictures intended to be viewed in sequence.

Appearances can be deceptive. Pictures hanging on art gallery walls, often at the same height or at a height that enables them to be easily seen can suggest that they may always have been displayed and looked at in this way. It is not the case with this picture.

This wooden panel shows an episode from the Apocryphal Old Testament Book of Susannah. It is one of a series of four or five long panels which were originally sited on the walls of a room in or around Florence – probably at shoulder height or slightly higher. The connected narrative of this series, rather like a cartoon strip, shows episodes in the story of Susannah. Three other panels, from this series and similar in style, are now in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, and a further panel is in the Yale University Art Gallery.

The story of Susannah and the Elders is an instructive moral tale about lust and the corruption of officials. Susannah, whilst bathing naked, was spied upon by two elders of her tribe. When she confronted them they threatened to blackmail her if she refused to sleep with them. She refused and they accused her publicly of having committed adultery. For this she was condemned to death. The young Prophet Daniel was unconvinced of her guilt and decided to question each elder separately. He found serious inconsistencies in their accounts of what they had supposedly witnessed together. They in turn were sentenced to death and Susannah was freed and her reputation restored.

Pictures like this which highlight the moral integrity expected of those holding public office were sometimes put in public buildings or civic spaces where such officials might gather. One can envisage this picture and its companions being, for example, in a small magistrates court or in a room where financial dealings were conducted, or in a merchant's tribunal room.

This panel shows three episodes. The first, on the right, is of Susannah leaving the house that she occupies with her husband Joacim. The second shows her walking across her garden with two handmaidens and the third depicts her naked being surprised by the two elders. These three distinct episodes all take place within the one unified space of the garden. It was not unusual in this type of picture to have such connected but separate episodes put within one space. A painting, also in the Walker, showing episodes in the life of St John the Baptist is similarly constructed.

The house, garden and city that can be glimpsed over the wall are characteristic of modern Renaissance Florentine classical architecture of the time the picture was painted, about 1490. The arches of alternate dark grey and pale grey stone can be seen in several cloisters of the period. The type of fountain is typical of many similar Italian municipal examples.

Susannah and her servants are also up–to–date in their dress. They are not however dressed in any clothes that Florentine women would actually have worn, but are wearing the sort of classical style drapery that from about 1470 onwards had begun to be used to depict Roman or Greek goddesses or female figures in pictures.

We don't know the name of the artist who painted this picture. The picture is usually described as being by the Master of Apollo and Daphne because of similarities in the composition, brushwork and overall look of this picture and a painting of Apollo and Daphne believed to be by the same hand and which is now in another museum. It has been suggested that the picture might have been painted by Bartollomeo di Giovanni, a follower of Domenico Ghirlandaio who was also strongly influenced by the painter Botticelli. The sort of clothes the women are wearing in this picture are rather like those worn by the women in Botticelli's famous painting 'Primavera' (Spring).

The picture belonged for a while to Philip Rathbone, chairman of the Liverpool City Council committee that was responsible for the Walker Art Gallery when it was first opened. Rathbone left a number of his pictures to the gallery when he died in 1895.

Compare this painting with 'Scenes from the life of St John the Baptist'