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)
16 Samson went to Gaza, and there he saw a harlot, and he went in to her. 2The Gazites were told, “Samson has come here,” and they surrounded the place and lay in wait for him all night at the gate of the city. They kept quiet all night, saying, “Let us wait till the light of the morning; then we will kill him.” 3But Samson lay till midnight, and at midnight he arose and took hold of the doors of the gate of the city and the two posts, and pulled them up, bar and all, and put them on his shoulders and carried them to the top of the hill that is before Hebron.
4 After this he loved a woman in the valley of Sorek, whose name was Deliʹlah. 5And the lords of the Philistines came to her and said to her, “Entice him, and see wherein his great strength lies, and by what means we may overpower him, that we may bind him to subdue him; and we will each give you eleven hundred pieces of silver.” 6And Deliʹlah said to Samson, “Please tell me wherein your great strength lies, and how you might be bound, that one could subdue you.” 7And Samson said to her, “If they bind me with seven fresh bowstrings which have not been dried, then I shall become weak, and be like any other man.” 8Then the lords of the Philistines brought her seven fresh bowstrings which had not been dried, and she bound him with them. 9Now she had men lying in wait in an inner chamber. And she said to him, “The Philistines are upon you, Samson!” But he snapped the bowstrings, as a string of tow snaps when it touches the fire. So the secret of his strength was not known.
10 And Deliʹlah said to Samson, “Behold, you have mocked me, and told me lies; please tell me how you might be bound.” 11And he said to her, “If they bind me with new ropes that have not been used, then I shall become weak, and be like any other man.” 12So Deliʹlah took new ropes and bound him with them, and said to him, “The Philistines are upon you, Samson!” And the men lying in wait were in an inner chamber. But he snapped the ropes off his arms like a thread.
13 And Deliʹlah said to Samson, “Until now you have mocked me, and told me lies; tell me how you might be bound.” And he said to her, “If you weave the seven locks of my head with the web and make it tight with the pin, then I shall become weak, and be like any other man.” 14So while he slept, Deliʹlah took the seven locks of his head and wove them into the web. And she made them tight with the pin, and said to him, “The Philistines are upon you, Samson!” But he awoke from his sleep, and pulled away the pin, the loom, and the web.
15 And she said to him, “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when your heart is not with me? You have mocked me these three times, and you have not told me wherein your great strength lies.” 16And when she pressed him hard with her words day after day, and urged him, his soul was vexed to death. 17And he told her all his mind, and said to her, “A razor has never come upon my head; for I have been a Nazirite to God from my mother’s womb. If I be shaved, then my strength will leave me, and I shall become weak, and be like any other man.”
18 When Deliʹlah saw that he had told her all his mind, she sent and called the lords of the Philistines, saying, “Come up this once, for he has told me all his mind.” Then the lords of the Philistines came up to her, and brought the money in their hands. 19She made him sleep upon her knees; and she called a man, and had him shave off the seven locks of his head. Then she began to torment him, and his strength left him. 20And she said, “The Philistines are upon you, Samson!” And he awoke from his sleep, and said, “I will go out as at other times, and shake myself free.” And he did not know that the Lord had left him. 21And the Philistines seized him and gouged out his eyes, and brought him down to Gaza, and bound him with bronze fetters; and he ground at the mill in the prison. 22But the hair of his head began to grow again after it had been shaved.