This superb panel by Jan Massys epitomizes the sophisticated beauty synonymous with the mature phase of the Northern Renaissance. While retaining the meticulous technique developed by his Netherlandish forbearers, Jan Massys moved throughout his career toward a refined mannerist style that paid tribute to Italian art. Jan Massys was born the talented son of Quentin Massys, the leading painter in Antwerp in the early decades of the 16th century. Despite this prestigious ancestry, little is securely known of Jan’s seemingly peripatetic career. Along with his brother Cornelis, Jan most probably took over his father’s workshop upon his death in 1530. He was admitted as a master in the Guild of Saint Luke in Antwerp two years later. Extremely scant documentation in Antwerp until 1555 has led scholars to believe that Jan travelled extensively during his early years of activity. Based on stylistic affinities, it is possible that he sojourned in Fontainebleau, at the court of Francis I who fostered a vibrant school of painting. The artist also visited Italy around 1549. On his return to Antwerp around 1555, Jan embarked on a period of sustained activity, possibly triggered by a series of financial hurdles. His work appears to have been held in high esteem by his contemporaries, as he was employed by the city council and his name frequently features in local inventories. Although Jan’s style is much indebted to his father’s, his predilection for alluring depictions of the female nude became a feature unique to his art. Using the biblical narrative as a pretext for his iconic renditions of the female form, Jan turned time and again to Old Testament heroines such as Lot’s daughters (Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique), Judith (fig. 1, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts), and Bathsheba (Paris, Musée du Louvre). Susanna and the Elders also belongs to Jan’s favored themes and at least one other treatment of the subject, not signed, but dated 1567, survives today, albeit in a very different composition (Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique).
A vivid tale of virtue assailed, Susanna and the Elders (recounted by Daniel 13:1-64) describes how two prominent elderly judges fell for the beautiful Susanna, the chaste wife of Joachim, a respected member of the Jewish community in Babylon. One day as she was about to bathe in her husband’s orchard, the lustful pair assaulted the young woman and threatened to denounce her as an adulteress unless she gave into their desire. With her strong morality and her faith in God, Susanna chose false accusation and certain death over dishonor and refused herself to the Elders. At the trial, the Elders used their eminent reputation to produce a guilty verdict. Upon hearing her condemnation, Susanna appealed aloud to God, and was rewarded for her faith by the young prophet Daniel, who revealed the Elders’ duplicity and Susanna’s innocence.
In this monumental panel, Susanna is shown sitting by a small pool. The ornate marble ledge where she rests is covered by a red velvet cushion on which Susanna has discarded her gold embroidered shirt and green cloak. Wearing nothing but a bejeweled headdress and moving away from the Elders that surround her menacingly from the left, she offers the viewer her beautiful nude body. This clever compositional device makes the beholder at once the witness of Susanna’s innocence and a participant in the scene: a voyeur complicit in the Elders’ sinful attempt. Massys frames the beautifully delineated body of the recoiling Susanna against the Elders’ agitated figures, creating an eloquent network of hands. Indicative of their age, the Elders are clad in old-fashioned garb, including chaperons, long tunics and wide hanging sleeves. The ostentatious fur-lined fabrics they sport reveals the vanity of their ways, while their grotesque facial types and crooked stances allude to their moral corruption. The Elders’ exaggerated features and toothy grins are reminiscent of Jan's father Quentin Massys's own popular caricatures of old age, based on famous drawings by Leonardo, such as The Tax Collectors (Vaduz, Lichtenstein collection), and The Ugly Duchess (London, National Gallery). The accentuated contrast between young and old age at play in this picture is a deliberate reference to a lively earlier tradition in Northern painting: the theme of the ill-matched lovers. These moralizing secular scenes involved an old lecher fondling a willing young woman, often in exchange for gold. It had been popularized by Quentin Massys, in works like the well-known panel now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (fig. 2). Jan himself took up the subject in a painting now in the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.
To the right of the composition is an elaborate fountain featuring gilded bronze statues. In this virtuosic passage, Massys shows the full extent of his handling, adopting an energetic, free, and graphic touch to model the fountain’s sculptures, that contrasts vividly with the smooth trompe l’oeil rendering of the adjacent columns of polychrome marble. Again, this subtle sense of texture and taste for multicolored polished marble is a feature of Quentin Massys’s art, visible for instance in the Madonna of the Cherries (The Hague, Mauritshuis) or the Virgin and Child in a niche (London, Courtauld Gallery), which Jan brilliantly continued. On the fountain’s upper register, holding a lightning bolt and sitting atop an eagle is a statue of the Greek god Zeus. Known for his voracious amorous pursuits and numerous extra-marital affairs, Zeus’s features are reminiscent of those of the bearded Elder nearby, possibly drawing a parallel between the mythological and the biblical licentious figures. Despite the resemblance, however, Zeus is shown turning away from this wrongful scene of seduction, perhaps in a gesture of condemnation, a witty humanist detail on the part of Massys that would have appealed to his educated audience.
The beautiful landscape background is infused with further symbolism. For instance, the numerous rabbits that populate the meadows were, because of their notorious fecundity, commonly used as a reference to lust. The peacock has a multilayered meaning: from the ancient belief that its flesh never decayed, it became a Christian symbol for the resurrection and incorruptibility and in this picture, it could stand for Susanna’s virtue. In addition, the peacock was the attribute of Zeus’s wife Hera, goddess of marriage, and it is perhaps no coincidence that this embodiment of marital duties is visually aligned with Zeus’s riotous eagle. Dazzling in its minutely-rendered details, the idyllic garden and ornate cityscape beyond constitute a genuine homage to the Netherlandish landscape tradition initiated by Joachim Patinir in Massys’s native Antwerp. Bushes are dotted with virginal roses and lilies, while fanciful gothic edifices evoke the exotic splendor of Babylon. The painter’s subtle use of atmospheric perspective, with carefully grading blue tonalities to suggest spatial recession, carries an immense poetic appeal.