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February 2013

Susanna and the Counter-Reformation

Artemisia Gentileschi, "Susanna and the Elders," 1610. Image courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art

“Susanna and the Elders” is an apocryphal biblical story of virtue and voyeurism. The story tells of a virtuous Israelite woman who was bathing, unaware that she was watched by two lecherous elders. After bathing, the elders accost Susanna and threaten to blackmail her unless she has sex with them. Susanna refuses to succumb to their threats, and eventually is saved. The story of Susanna and the Elders often appears in Renaissance and Baroque art. The inclusion makes sense for a lot of reasons. For example, the subject matter provided an excuse to depict the female nude.

One of the most popular depictions of Susanna and the Elders was created by the female artist Artemisia Gentileschi (see above). This painting has been discussed at length by feminist art historian Mary Garrard. Garrard discusses how Susanna’s twisted composition stresses her defensiveness and innocence. Garrard also delves into a discussion of Artemisia’s own biography, in which she was raped by her father’s assistant Agostino Tassi.

Although Garrard has some interesting ideas, today I’m more interested in writing about a more recent interpretation for this painting. Edward J. Olsewski published a short article in 2007 which discusses new ways to interpret this painting. Edward J. Olszewski agrees with some of Mary Garrard’s interpretations, but finds that we need to interpret this painting (and other depictions of Susanna going back to the Renaissance) within the context of the Counter-Reformation and extant literature. For example, he finds that nudity is a reflection of truth rather than merely male lasciviousness, and quotes several sources that discuss “truth unveiled” (Dante, Purgatorio XXXIII) or “nudity – that is truth” (Berchorius’ Moralized Ovid) to prove his point.1 He writes, “Much of the literature of the cinquecento associates goodness with beauty. Thus, Susanna’s nudity can be interpreted as an indication of her innocence, of the truth of her claims in the episode with the Elders.”2

I think this focus on truth and innocence is pertinent to the Counter-Reformation period, in which the Catholic Church is being accused of false doctrine and heresy by the Protestants. In fact, Susanna herself was seen as a symbol of the Church going back to the early Christian era: Hippolytus associated Susanna with the persecuted Church (finding her bath to be a parallel with baptism) and felt like her resistance of temptation prefigured the Church’s redemption of original sin.3 It seems to me that images of Susanna, therefore, served as a way to claim the innocence of the Church against the pestering and corrupt Protestants.

My ideas about Susanna and the Counter-Reformation sentiment are further supported by Edward J. Olszewski’s connections. He noted that Martin Luther and other northern Reformers had considered the story of Susanna to be apocryphal, which led to the exclusion of the story in the 1611 version of the King James Bible. In the Catholic Bible, however, the story remained as an apocryphal addition to the Book of Daniel. As a result, this apocryphal story seems to have been conscientiously depicted in Italian art as a visual assertion of the correctness —  one could even say the “naked truth” — of the Catholic Bible.4

1 Edward L. Olszewski, “Expanding the Litany for Susanna and the Elders,” in Notes in the History of Art 26, no. 3 (Spring 2007): 46.

2 Ibid.

3 Mary Garrard, “Artemisia and Susanna” in Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany by Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, eds. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1982), 152. See also Olszewski, p. 42.

4 Olszewski, p. 46. It is worth noting, too, that “Susanna and the Elders” paintings were also created by Northern European artists, such as Rembrandt and Rubens. I believe, though, that the subject matter of Susanna and the Elders would have held particular meaning to a Counter-Reformation audience.

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CAA Recap: Mary Magdalene and Cotán

For those of you who follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed my burst of activity when I began to live-tweet while attending sessions at CAA (and that THATCamp session which preceded the conference). There are a lot of things that I learned and explored during the conference, and I particularly liked contributing to the Art History Flashbook that was created during one THATCamp session. Another highlight of the conference was getting to meet several art history bloggers for lunch. It was fun to meet Ben, Frank, and Sedef in person.

My notes from each conference session are very extensive, and I don’t think I want to hash them out in this forum right now. But I do want to highlight a few of the talks which really stood out to me. These talks were particularly interesting, especially because of the course which I am teaching on Counter-Reformation art. In fact, I discussed several ideas from the conference with my students this afternoon.

Titian, "Penitent Magdalene" (c. 1533, left) and "Penitent Magdalene" (c. 1565, right)

I really enjoyed Charlene Villaseñor Black’s talk, “Sacred Tranformations, Indigenous Influences: Mary Magdalene and Other Case Studies in Colonial Art.” Black discussed the treatment of Mary Magdalene in relation to the Counter-Reformation, and brought in some European examples (such as the two depictions of the Penitent Magdalene by Titian shown above, which evidence how Titian moved away from the problematic exposed-breast iconography after the Council of Trent stipulated conditions for religious art in 1563).

Black discussed how colonial artists did not quickly respond to the censorship of the Council of Trent and argued that Juan Correa’s Mary Magdalene (c. 1680) is similarly erotic, even though the figure is clothed. She mentions how the reclining posture of the Magdalene can reference the her previous life as a prostitute. Additionally, images of the Magdalene outdoors (in the wilderness) can even recall her past as a prostitute, since outdoor scenes have associations with Venus and love-making. Overall, Black wonders if indigenous attitudes toward sexuality and prostitution may have affected the way that the Magdalene was represented in Spanish America.

My view of Penny Howell Jolly's talk from the hall. I took this picture so that I could remember paintings by Master of the Female Half-Lengths, Quentin Massys, and Jan Gossaert.

Speaking of the Magdalene, I also really enjoyed a talk by Penny Howell Jolly, “Experiencing the Magdalene: Seeing, Smelling, and Hearing Salvation in Northern Devotional Art.” This session was extremely full, and I only got to hear this presentation from the hallway. I remember that she spoke about sexual associations with the lute in Northern art. She discussed that when the Magdalene is depicted with a lute, this could suggest that she is love-sick for her symbolic lover, Christ himself. She also discussed how the jar (part of the Magdalene’s iconography) can have associations with perfume and the perfumed luxury offered by the Magdalene as a prostitute.

Cotán, "Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber," 1602

I also enjoyed Martina Phleger Hesser’s talk, “Juan Sánchez Cotán’s San Diego Still Life Painting as Vehicle for Gender Transformation.” Hesser discussed how Cotán painted this still life perhaps right before he entered a Carthusian monastery. She discussed the many sexual associations with the fruits and vegetables in this painting, including how the cabbage plays a role in sexual gratification since layers are peeled away and removed (just like clothing). As a result, the upward, parabolic composition could indicate the sexual struggles that a monk must overcome in order to elevate to a higher, more divine realm.

Hesser also discusses how monks have to create a new gender for themselves that is neither male nor female, since they enter a monastic community and leave sexual desires behind. Additionally, members of a monastic community enter a mystical marriage with God, which therefore sets them apart from both men and women in the outside world. I thought that this idea of gender was particularly interesting, especially since the Carthusian monastery to which Cotán belonged practiced vegetarianism. Since these monks have given up the arguably “masculine” practice of meat consumption, I think the vegetarianism could be another manifestation of how these men have created a new gender identity for themselves. Cotán’s still life paintings are evidence of this vegetarian practice (and gender identity) in many respects, although I have noticed that game fowl is depicted in some of his still lifes (see Still Life with Game Fowl, Vegetables and Fruits (c. 1602)). It is an interesting angle to consider, though, and I’d like to explore this topic further in the future.

Did you attend CAA? What conference talks stood out to you?

— 4 Comments

Guest Post on 3PP: Bernini’s “David”

Bernini, David, 1623-24. Image courtesty of the Web Gallery of Art

I’m honored to have a guest post featured on Three Pipe Problem. It was really enjoyable to write this essay and reflect on my experiences with art history over the past several years. In this post, I particularly consider how my experience of viewing Bernini’s David changed the way that I approach, analyze, and experience art. Please join the discussion over there!

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The Open Mouth in Baroque Art

Rembrandt, Self Portrait with an Open Mouth, 1630

This morning I’ve been thinking about how a lot of Baroque art depicts figures with open mouths, or partially-open mouths. Since the Baroque period involved a heightened interest in emotion and psychological reactions, it’s not surprising that artists would be interested in exploring the human emotions that are conveyed through this specific composition.

Caravaggio, "Boy Bitten by a Lizard," 1595-1600. National Gallery version.

Jean H. Duffy explains how the open mouth can convey multiple emotions at the same time, including pain, ecstasy, and fear.1 Caravaggio was well known for depicting figures with open mouths, including his famous Boy Bitten By a Lizard (see above) or David with the Head of Goliath (both the version in the Borghese Gallery and the version in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna). and  The complexity of such expressions no doubt were appealing to Baroque artists, who often were continually interested in the idea of mingling emotions. Perhaps the open mouth motif and its varied effects are a nice compliment, then, to the ways that Baroque artists tried to mingle other aspects of their art, like the tendency to mix artistic mediums.

Bernini, detail of "The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa," 1645-52. Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome

Howard Hibbard also weighs in on the discussion of the open mouth, particularly when he discusses Guido Reni’s Immaculate Conception (1627, Metropolitan Museum of Art). Hibbard finds that the open mouth imagery can relate to Counter-Reformation sentiment. He writes, “Mary’s mouth, like those of the angels, is partially open, as if voicing a prayer or supplication. The revelation of human warmth and frailty – the humanization of the divine – is a characteristic of seventeenth century art and Reni was one of the innovators.”The humanization of figures like the Virgin and saints were important at this time, especially as the Catholic church sought to make such figures more approachable and relatable to a lay audience. In addition to Reni, the sculptor Bernini often depicted his figures with open mouths, most notably seen in The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa (see detail above).

Borromini, interior of the dome of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, Rome, 1638-1646

This topic of open mouths has got me thinking quite a bit, and I wonder if there can even be some parallels made with Baroque architecture. The shape of a human’s open mouth seems to have parallel with the ovals that Borromini and Bernini utilized in their architectural spaces. I think the irregularity of the oval lends itself to the emotion and perhaps vulnerability that is found in the open mouth of a human. The oval is also a more dynamic shape than the circle, which adds to its expressive features.

I’m sure that these musings on the open mouth and oval shape are going to influence the way that I interact with Baroque art and architecture in the future. I’m curious to see whether I feel like I’m walking into a gaping mouth the next time I step into Bernini’s piazza outside of Saint Peter’s (1656-67)!

What depictions of open mouths (or oval shapes) do you like in Baroque art? Do you know of any other theories for why the open mouth would have been preferred during the Baroque era?

1 Jean H. Duffy, Reading Between the Lines: Claude Simon and the Visual Arts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 261. Available online HERE.

2 Howard Hibbard, “Guido Reni’s Painting of the Immaculate Conception,” Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin (1969): 28.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.