Samson and Delilah
Commentary by David Jasper
It is difficult to identify exactly what moment in the biblical narrative Anthony van Dyck may have sought to evoke here.
The Philistines appear to be binding Samson with ropes—though in Judges 16:12 it is Delilah herself who does the binding and Samson immediately snaps the ropes. Later, in Judges 16:21, the Philistines bring him to Gaza, where he is bound a second time with bronze fetters. But Samson’s head was shaved before he was transferred to Gaza, so Anthony van Dyck’s inclusion of Delilah’s couch at the bottom left of the picture, with a pair of scissors and a few locks of hair below, seems to conflate more than one narrative moment. Of the man whom she had called to shave him during his sleep (16:19), there is no sign.
Before he is bound with bronze shackles, Samson has his eyes gouged out (16:21). Delilah, who has been acting as an ‘agent’ on behalf of the Philistines, used to ensnare the lovelorn Samson (16:4–5), is by this stage no longer active in the story. But in this painting Samson is gazing at her. Van Dyck’s focus is upon the despairing, loving looks between the two of them, as Delilah holds her hand outstretched to touch his face. In the words of the German theologian Dorothée Sölle, their ‘glances and gestures towards one another illustrate their tender attachment despite what has happened’ (1994: 145). Here the Philistines seem to be dragging Samson away from Delilah’s embrace. Van Dyck devotes significant attention to Delilah, as a foil to Samson: her pale skin, white blouse with one breast exposed, and the silky folds of her gown all catch the light.
Delilah becomes increasingly the focus of this episode in baroque art, and male artists devote an utterly unbiblical attention to her as a desirable woman. She here becomes the tragic lover, a role that overcomes her treachery. Van Dyck’s golden-tressed Delilah’s ‘desirability’ is not that of the femme fatale of popular readings (Bal 1987: 50), but is softened to that of the forlorn lover.
Gritsai, Natalia. 2013. Van Dyck (London: Sirrocco Publishing)
Moir, Alfred. 1994. Anthony van Dyck (New York: Harry N. Abrams)
Sölle, Dorothée. 1994. Great Women of the Bible (Macon: Mercer University Press)
A Grim Delight
Commentary by David Jasper
It has been said of Rembrandt van Rijn that he ‘may very well be considered Holland’s most interesting biblical scholar’ (Bal 1990: 34). As so often, his rendering of Judges 16:21 in this painting shows many signs of close attention to scriptural detail. In this respect he proves unusual compared with many other artists before and after him.
He does not sexualize Delilah as heavily here as others have done, their paintings often highlighting her as seductress or even lover of Samson (see the other works in this exhibition). She is instead, as in the biblical narrative, more an instrument of the Philistines, working to defend her people. The artist does not indulgently dwell on her physical ‘charms’, but on her energetic action. Moreover, the painting’s focus is every bit as much on Samson as on her; he is foregrounded as a figure of powerful strength whom it takes five men to hold down.
But Rembrandt also takes the opportunity which is afforded to artists to amplify visually what is only sparingly described textually.
As one Philistine gouges out Samson’s right eye, another binds him with metal shackles (though in the text this takes place later, when they have transported their captive to Gaza). The violence of the scene is underscored by Samson’s clenched right foot in the centre of the composition, raised with the toes curled in pain as blood spurts from his eye:
The breadth of scale with which the cruel deed by the armoured Philistine is depicted is in stark contrast to the simple words of the Bible text. (Hoekstra 1990: 105)
Occasionally, despite his customary faithfulness to the Bible, Rembrandt departs from it too. In this rendition of Samson’s capture, it is clear that it is Delilah and not the man whom she called (Judges 16:19) who has shaved Samson. Rembrandt paints her at the centre of the composition, looking back with grim delight she rushes out of the tent, clutching in her raised left hand Samson’s locks of hair, and in her right a pair of shears. An effect is heightened and a point is made: Delilah appears all the more unequivocally a figure of treachery.
Exum, J. Cheryl. 1996. Plotted, Shot, and Painted: Cultural Representations of Biblical Women (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press)
Hoekstra, Hidde. 1990. Rembrandt and the Bible (Utrecht: Magna Books)
Mayor, A. Hyatt. 2013. Rembrandt and the Bible (New Haven: Yale University Press)
Commentary by David Jasper
This work is by Solomon Joseph Solomon, an artist with a Jewish background. He gives great attention here to the looks exchanged between Delilah and Samson: vixenish delight on the one and anguished defeat on the other. At the same time, he gives limited attention to the narrative as portrayed in Judges 16.
In a scene of utter chaos betokening struggle, Samson is being bound with ropes (16:12), but not by Delilah as described in the biblical text. A body lies on the floor; a table is overturned; the shears that have shaved Samson lie discarded in the lower left of the painting. In representing the moment when the Philistines seize Samson (16:21—‘And the Philistines seized him and gouged out his eyes’), the artist highlights Delilah’s betrayal as she is shown taunting him with his shaven hair in her hand, held out in a mocking gesture. She is bare breasted, but less voluptuous than in many other portrayals (the seventeenth-century Delilahs of Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck, for example).
The painting reflects the style of the Parisian Salon in its scale, its violent intensity, and its voyeuristic depiction of nudity. Solomon develops the violent implications of the more sparse biblical narrative, portraying Samson as a powerful figure held by four men with a further two recumbent figures as victims of the struggle. In the left background, a group of armed soldiers have begun pouring into the room, perhaps from the ‘inner chamber’, where Judges 16:12 tells us they were lying in wait.
Who then are the naked figures here binding Samson? They seem to have no biblical origins, but the chaos of this dramatic episode gives an opportunity for the artist to demonstrate his skills in painting the human body. Indeed, the story of Samson and Delilah was popular with artists in part because it provided just such (acceptable) occasions to paint nakedness, and this work was admired in particular for its dynamic male nudes (Valentine 1999: 158).
The gloating Delilah is also entirely unbiblical. The text—insofar as it tells us anything about her attitude—suggests that she pursued her ends with cold deliberation.
Bernard, Bruce. 1988. The Bible and Its Painters (London: Macdonald)
Solomon, Solomon Joseph.  2012. The Practice of Oil Painting and Drawing (New York: Dover Publications)
Valentine, Helen. 1999. Art in the Age of Queen Victoria (New Haven: Yale University Press)
Anthony van Dyck :
Samson and Delilah (Capture of Samson), c.1628–30 , Oil on canvas
Rembrandt van Rijn :
The Blinding of Samson, 1636 , Oil on canvas
Solomon Joseph Solomon :
Samson, 1886–87 , Oil on canvas
Commentary by David Jasper
The infamous biblical story of Samson and Delilah is limited to Judges 16:4–20. It is preceded by the brief episode with a prostitute suggestive of Samson’s weakness for women (this first Gazite woman contrasting with the business-like Delilah). The story is told with folkloric simplicity and repetitions, giving the barest materials for the rich traditions that have grown up around it.
Written biblical commentaries (as distinct from visual explorations of the episode) tend to focus more on Samson as the God-devoted Nazarite, for whom ‘the appeal of Philistine women [is his] fatal flaw’ (Niditch 2001: 187). The name Delilah (Hebrew dĕlîlâ) possibly relates to ‘loose hair’ or ‘flirtatiousness’, but also plays on the term for ‘night’ (layĕlâ).
In a tradition in art that goes back at least to the sculptural work of Nicola and Giovanni Pisano on the Perugia fountain (1278) and up to contemporary filmic depictions, the sparely-told biblical narrative of Judges 16 has given rise to interpretations of the story that are both violent and erotic. Many of these artistic responses have taken us far from the biblical text and its religious themes and allusions.
In the free development of the scriptural story, Samson and Delilah have given artists (almost exclusively male artists) opportunities to portray a muscular male physique and a beautiful, often half-naked woman (and patrons the opportunity to own such depictions). And this almost entirely male tradition of art has sexualized the narrative from the brief suggestion of verse 4, which records Samson’s falling in love with Delilah.
Such fascinations on the part of artists and patrons may, however, commit in varying degrees the sin of Samson himself, in making Delilah an object of fantasy, sexualized as lover or exotic vamp. As the narrative becomes eroticized, the politics and theology of Judges are forgotten, and art falls into the very trap that is set for Samson (which is to forget God—as a consequence of which ‘the LORD … left him’ (v.20)).
Our three paintings show three possible responses to the story told in Judges 16. All neglect both the traditional folk motifs and the political–theological concerns of the story, though each is richly creative.
Anthony van Dyck’s painting portrays a wholly fictional love story, a romanticized theme often found in baroque art and repeated up to Cecil B. de Mille’s classic film Samson and Delilah (1949) in which Delilah, following her heart, sacrifices herself in the temple with Samson (Exum 1996: 235).
Solomon Joseph Solomon’s text-book The Practice of Oil Painting and of Drawing (1914), and his freedom of interpretation of the text in his painting of the scene, suggest that he was probably more interested in the aesthetics of the human body than the biblical story. Nevertheless, Solomon’s Delilah seems at one level to illustrate surprisingly well the description of her in the almost contemporaneous The Woman’s Bible (1898) as manifesting ‘the treacherous, the sinister, the sensuous side of woman’ (Stanton 2003: 34). The Woman’s Bible as a whole sought to challenge dominant models of biblical patriarchy, so it is perhaps an ironic twist that Solomon’s louche sensationalism and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s work seem to find something in common in their treatment of Delilah. She becomes simultaneously the object of the male artist’s gaze and of a proto-feminist dismissal of her sensuality.
Of the three works, Rembrandt van Rijn’s is exceptional in its lack of interest in the erotic possibilities of the story. He also offers the closest reading of the text. There is a heightened focus on biblical detail as Rembrandt portrays the violence being perpetrated on Samson, while Delilah is a figure already moving into the background, leaving the scene to the men as they deal with the fallen hero. In Mieke Bal’s words, ‘wicked-by-nature woman is thus denied participation in the narrative events’ (1987: 51).
Rembrandt perhaps has a more developed awareness that Delilah’s action will not be the last word. In 16:1–3 Samson had slept with a prostitute in Gaza while the Gazites lay in wait for him, but even in his weakness for women he outsmarted them, taking the city by surprise at midnight. Here, in Judges 16:22, we are told that his hair begins to grow as soon as it is shaved. Delilah’s ruse works, but it works finally to the demise of the Philistines and their temple. And by this time she will have disappeared altogether from the biblical narrative.
Bal, Mieke. 1987. Lethal Love: Feminist Literary Readings of Biblical Live Stories (Bloomington: Indiana University Press)
———1990. ‘Dealing/With/Women: Daughters in the Book of Judges’, in The Book and the Text: The Bible and Literary Theory, ed. by Regina M. Schwartz (Oxford: Blackwell), pp. 16–39
Niditch, Susan. 2001. ‘Judges’, in The Oxford Bible Commentary, ed. by John Barton and John Muddiman (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 176–91
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady.  2003. The Woman’s Bible: A Classic Feminist Perspective (Mineola, N.Y: Dover Publications)