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been acting as an ‘agent’ on behalf of the Philistines, used to ensnare the lovelorn Samson (16:4–5), is by this stage no longer active in the story.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)