An apocryphal addition to the Old Testament describes how two lecherous elders threatened to accuse Susannah, a beautiful young woman, of adultery – a crime punishable by death – if she did not give in to their desires. Guido Reni here illustrates the episode: one man grabs at Susannah’s robes and puts his fingers to his lips, commanding her silence, while the other raises a hand, ready to touch her. She grasps at her drapery, attempting to cover her breasts.
This painting hung in the Palazzo Lancellotti, Rome, in 1640, alongside Lot and his Daughters leaving Sodom, also now in the National Gallery’s collection. Given that the paintings are of a similar size, it was believed for some time that they were created as companion pieces. However, cleaning in 1984 revealed brushwork that suggests different dates for the works – Susannah and the Elders was painted later than Lot and his Daughters and the two were likely not originally intended as a pair.