Beyond The Biblical
Reflection on Gentileschi's underpainting and its parallels with modern day censorship and psychological oppression.
Artemisia Gentileschi, was one of the most progressive and expressive Italian Baroque painters. Despite being a woman, she achieved international acclaim becoming an icon for feminist art. One of her greatest masterpieces, Susanna and the Elders (1610), depicts the biblical story of Susanna’s harassment by lecherous men, where she cowers away with timid, frightful apprehension. However, what fascinates me about this painting is what the human eye cannot see. Modern day X-ray technology exposes a very different perspective of the story.
In revealing Gentileschi’s underpainting, we can see Susanna is no longer a defenseless victim but rather an avenger; sitting upright screaming in defiant anguish, whilst wielding a knife against her assaulters. It is said that this original painting mirrors Gentileschi’s psychological reality, who at age 19 was rapped by her teacher, the artist, Agostino Tassi. So the question bares to mind…why did Gentileschi paint over her original? Did she fear the rendition was too audacious for 17th Century ideals, or did someone force her to change it?
Whatever Gentileschi’s reason may have been, I cannot help but recognize victims still face the same social struggles as she did—from today’s growing Cancel Culture, to the shameful death of the #MeToo Movement. So let’s always remember that the sins of the crimes belong to those who commit them, and the shame is theirs to bare. The people who protect the abusers, by covering up their evil acts and blame the victims in the process, are just as guilty as those who committed the assault.