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)