In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Sir Toby Belch is up late drinking with Sir Andrew Aguecheek. With drunken merriment, he sings a short strain: ‘There dwelt a man in Babylon, lady lady!’
These words refer to a popular ballad of the time, which tells the Biblical story of Susanna and the Elders. Originating in the Apocrypha of the Book of Daniel, its theme of the sexual coercion of a young woman by older men remains all too resonant today.
The song’s Babylonian is the wealthy Joachim, but his beautiful young wife Susanna is at the heart of the story. Two elders find her bathing alone in her husband’s garden. They threaten her that if she will not lie with them, they will accuse her of adultery, and – their word naturally trumping hers – she will be put to death.
Susanna is dismayed, but out of respect for God she refuses to acquiesce. And so she is accused. But by divine intervention, the young prophet Daniel exposes the false witness of the two men, and they are executed instead, while Susanna is saved.
The full ballad tells this story with a pleasingly grave, stately tune – I like the following arrangement in particular.
Various other composers have been drawn to this tale. Handel – being Handel – made it into a three-hour oratorio, but the music that first introduced me to the story lasts a mere three minutes.
William Byrd’s Susanna Fair is a consort song for voice and viols. Its two verses present a simple moral binary, contrasting the threat of the elders and Susanna’s refusal. The first verse begins:
Susanna fair some time assaulted was
by two old men, desiring their delight,
which lewd intent they thought to bring to pass,
if not by tender love, by force and might
Byrd squeezes a huge amount of craft into this small song, with intricate counterpoint shifting ever restlessly. It starts with a short, furtive motif, passed around the viols like a malicious rumour. When the voice joins in, the words ‘two old men’ are underlined by a change to stark chords, before melting into a syncopated major-key cadence for ‘desiring their delight’.
This sudden sunny turn is perhaps the song’s loveliest moment, so there is poetic irony that the words here refer to the men’s malicious motive. Byrd’s music side-steps from minor to major, much as the text’s euphemism of ‘their delight’ tiptoes around the brutality of the act.
But this dramatic shift also emphasises the opposing intentions of the characters. In the second verse it coincides with Susanna’s response of steadfast piety: ‘my chastity shall then deflowered be’. While the elders prize the fulfilment of their lust, she only thinks of preserving her virtue.
Musically speaking, Susanna Fair is an exquisite little gem. But the tale’s morality remains thoroughly patriarchal. It is not to her own bodily autonomy that Susanna defers, but the authority of the ultimate Father – God. At the end she explains that she would rather ‘die of mine accord / ten thousand times, than once offend our Lord’.
You could say that Western art history has not exactly shown reticence towards female nudity, so it’s no surprise that the scene of Susanna bathing has been painted countless times. It can even be found engraved on a Carolingian crystal.
For many artists, the drama of the attempted coercion proved irresistible. Susanna is often shown hurriedly covering up – rarely with total success, it seems – while the elders deliver their ultimatum. In other depictions, they physically grapple with her.
But a very different example hangs in London’s National Gallery. Francesco Hayez’s 1850 painting shows Susanna alone, glancing over her shoulder at the viewer. Now we have become the voyeurs. Having seen it ‘in the flesh’, I’ve always interpreted this coy figure – her posture relatively relaxed, a leg crossed towards us – as deliberately alluring.
Is Hayez sympathising with the lust of the elders here? Or is it that, by positioning us in this way, he is making a point about the art world’s obsession with female nudity?
For all the great male artists who have painted Susanna, surely no one has brought as much personal experience to this story as Artemisia Gentileschi. While still a teenager in 17th-century Rome, she was raped by fellow artist Agostino Tassi – incredibly, during the resulting trial she was tortured to test her allegation, while he eventually walked free.
Several paintings of Susanna are attributed to Gentileschi. One, seemingly made when she was just seventeen, shows Susanna shrinking away in anger and disgust while the conspiring elders encroach on her from above.
Other pictures, such as her remarkably violent Judith Slaying Holofernes, have drawn interpretations of personal revenge fantasies for the traumas she endured – though how much the lurid tastes of patrons played a role here is still debated.
The Old Testament is hardly the first place you’d look for enlightened sexual politics. But Gentileschi’s harrowing life story – and her amazing art – is a powerful testament to the grim reality of sexual violence, in a world without justice through divine intervention.
Not for nothing does the old English ballad introduce Joachim and his reputation first. For all the beauty and drama of artworks inspired by Susanna, they still speak powerfully of a world that would rather see a woman die ‘ten thousand times’ than let her once have control of her own body and destiny.
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