Mirrors of the Kindled Fire

Teenagers don’t drop their love to gadgets easily. In this work by Tintoretto our teenager immediately spotted the new Kindle Fire that Susanne is playing with. But teenagers’ cynicism aside – who is who and what is gong one in this painting? And what is the role of the mirror in the story?

To start with, let’s have a look at the original work by this prominent master of the late Renaissance who is also known as Jacopo Robusti (and whose born name was Jacopo Comin) (1518 – 1594):

The painting is called Susanna and the Elders (1555). It is a fairly large canvas, 145 x195 cm, currently in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. 

As often happens, to tell the story about this picture (and about its mirror), I need to beat around a bush a bit and first tell about many other things.

In many ways, this story bears a lot of resemblances with the previous one, about Bathsheba and her mirror – to start with, it is also a story from Old Bible. But in many other ways it’s almost totally opposite a tale (as if reflected in a mirror, we could say).

This time I need to start not with the artist, but with the story itself. As I said, the story is from the Old Testament (so called the Book of Daniel). Worth noting that the book is not a part of the original Hebrew version of the Old Testament (Thanach) and appears only later, in the Greek edition called Septuagint. Therefore some historians believe that the story was not in the Bible before the

Therefore some historians believe that the story was not in the Bible before the first or even second century BC. In the Orthodox Judaism, for example, this story does not exist, that is, it is neither told or interpreted. But in the Russian Orthodox Church, for example, it does exist, and Susanna is even recognized as one of the saints.

Ok, what has happened here, exactly? According to some versions, Susanna, a young and beautiful woman known for her righteous behavior, just walked in her own garden (in other versions she decided to take a bath in a small pool or a fountain there).  ‘Her own’ here means that the garden was own by her husband, whose name remains unknown.

It is there Susanna was caught there by the two elders who (both) have fallen in love with the woman and suggested that she would respond with mutual affection.  Again, there exists a number of slightly different versions here. In some these elders just happened to be in the vicinity of Susanna’s garden and their passion sparkled accidentally; in others, they followed the woman already for quite some time individually, but this time bumped into each other and promptly decided to pursue their interests together.

It just happened to be that these two elders were not just your average old dudes, but the judges, elected and trusted by the community.  And yet, seizing the moment when Susanna was alone in the garden, they approached her with their indecent proposal. To basically have sex with them. Susanna angrily refused, but then the elders started to threaten her, explaining that they would tell to the people that it was her who tried to seduce them.  If this would be proven, Susanne should be stoned to death for adultery, according to the local law.

Despite these threats, Susanna decided not surrender and raised her voice instead, calling for help. However, the elders expectedly blamed Susanne herself and accused her of inappropriate, lustful behavior and adultery. The woman was brought to court where she tried to defend herself. Despite all her pleas, Susanna was accused and sentenced to death.

Then, very timely, appeared a guy called Daniel (he was not yet the famous prophet). He managed to prove that Susanna is innocent, and the guilt is with the elders. Apparently, Daniel used what later became known as cross-examination: he questioned the two elders separately and found some inconsistencies in the responses. As a result, it was two elders who were been executed, Susanna was acquitted, justice has been done, and Daniel began his path to the status of a prophet.

The dramatic story was immensely popular, including among artists. There are hundreds of artworks depicting this dramatic plot:

The above print-screen with the results of a simple Google search is only a tiny faction of the body of works, of course. Despite the fact that it wasn’t a canonical story (it was, in fact, an apocryphal one), Susanna and the Elders story was painted by nearly all major artists over centuries.

Ss in the case with Bathsheba, earlier works (in fact, almost all works until his painting by Tintoretto) never portrayed Susanna with a mirror.  I found only one such work with a mirror created before the painting by Tintoretto. This is a small engraving by the German master Georg Pencz made around 1532. In this case, however, I am not 100% sure if the round object that stands at the foot of Susanna is actually a mirror. It may as well be a metal platter or a basin of some sort.

PS: I later found a version of this engraving, of better quality. In my opinion, it confirms the interpretation of the object next to Susanna’s feet as a mirror, yet the skeptics could still argue that it could be a plate. A reflection of any kind would be of help.

In the Tintoretto’s case it’s not just a clearly mirror, but one of the most appropriately used mirrors in the whole art history. It is not by chance that this beautiful woman with a very unusual hairstyle brought this mirror with her to the garden. She was clearly planning to use it for her toilette, together with all sorts of other beautification devices, all these combs, necklaces, rings, ointments and so on. And she does use it! Gazing very attentively into the mirror, she creates a very intensive cocoon between her and the mirror, one of those things that would be later called aactant by Bruno Latour, a network agency consisting of human and non-human actors:

This is a very beautiful, calm and tranquil picture, and it does not have any of the feelings of lustful aggression, which is usually highly present in other artworks about the subject. Compare it, for example, with the versions of this scene created by in different time Peter-Paul Rubens:

These latter works are very expressive and emotional, yes. And yet they don’t ooze this very powerful suspense that the Tintoretto’s much more calm, almost peaceful work does. In case of Tintoretto, the elders are not yet together, they still pursue their desires separately. There is still a chance to calm down and retreat; alas.  The mirror, or rather an interplay between the mirror and Susanna, do play a crucial role here.

What is also interesting that unlike the case of Jan Matsys whose Bathsheba with a Mirror impacted many artists later one, the introduction of a mirror in this scenes by Tintoretto had little impact on the subsequent depictions of this story by other masters. In fact, it had hardly any effect at all. I struggled to find more works that would have a mirror.

By the way, the same Jan Matsys who painted the scene with Bathsheba had also painted this story, too (and yes, without a mirror):

In a funny way, the only exception to the Tintoretto’s No Mirror Rule was Tintoretto himself. I later found that he painted another Susanna and the Elders (c.1560), and also with a mirror, although very tiny one:

It is a very different take on the subject. Susanna is here still with her maid (and the elders have already joined their forces). The mirror is very small mirror here, and one would have to seriously search for it to notice:

And it hardly plays any role in this scene. The painting is in the collection of Louvre at the moment.


Later in my searches I have found a couple of other paintings with a similar small mirror at the feet of Susanna.  Both paintings are by the Dutch artist Hendrik Goltzius, better known for his engravings.

The first panel was created c. 1610, and is not in the Musée de la Chartreuse, in a small French town Douai:

Similar to the later Tintoretto work, one has to search for the mirror in this scene:

The second, larger canvas is currently in the Boston Museum of Art (c.1615):

Its mirror is not even fully visible:


And that’s about it! Among dozens, if not hundreds of artworks I seeped through. Why it has happened this way, I have no clue yet; one of many twists of art history, I guess. I bet there are many more ‘Susanna’s with Mirrors’, but they will be described in later posts.

PS: Soon after I’ve written this post I found an example of contemporary re-interpretation of this motif, and specifically of the painting by Tintoretto:

This painting is called La chair de Suzanne, after Tintoretto’s Susanna Bathing (1982), by Jean-Michel Alberola, a French painter of Algerian descent.



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