Lured by a bribe from the Philistines, Israel’s enemies, Delilah agreed to collaborate in the capture of Samson – the Israelite hero of the Old Testament, and her lover. She cut off the source of his legendary strength – his hair – while he slept (Judges 16: 18–21). Her treachery is underlined by the Latin inscription carved into the tree: ‘woman is three times worse than the devil himself.’
A luscious vine, heavy with ripe grapes, encircles the tree, which has no leaves of its own. The grapes may refer to the wine of the Eucharist, which was drunk at Mass and thought to transform into Christ’s blood. Like Samson, Christ was betrayed and handed over to his enemies; unlike Samson, his death was believed to redeem humanity of sin.
Mantegna made a number of images of famous women from the Bible and classical literature, painting them to look like ancient stone or bronze reliefs set against coloured marble backdrops.
Samson, the Israelite hero of the Old Testament, is overcome by sleep; limbs limp and mouth open, we can almost hear him snoring. Delilah, his lover, is busy shearing off his curly hair, which gathers in tufts on the ground beside him. Lured by a bribe from the Philistines, Israel’s neighbours and enemies, Delilah agreed to collaborate in Samson’s capture, and cut off the source of his legendary strength – his hair – while he slept (Judges 16:18–21). Her treachery is underlined by the Latin inscription carved into the tree: ‘woman is three times worse than the devil himself.’
Mantegna made a number of images of famous women from the Bible and classical literature. Chosen as examples from history of virtue or vice (as in the case of Delilah), Mantegna emphasised the timelessness of their moral message by painting them to look like ancient stone or bronze reliefs. Here, he has added colour and drama while maintaining the illusion that the whole object is made of stone. The scene is set against a vibrant background – swirls of grey and orange paint resemble a slice of polished variegated marble or a cameo (a relief carved from a shell or semi-precious stone). Either way, the colours and shapes suggest the flames of hell.
By contrast, the scene itself appears serene and idyllic. Samson and Delilah are dressed in ancient Roman draperies which slip loosely from their bodies, hinting at pleasure and rest. Mantegna has suggested the sound of running water coming from the fountain which flows into a small stream; Samson is slumped next to a clump of irises and behind him is a lemon tree bearing fruit. The tree has no leaves of its own and one of its branches has been cut, but a luscious vine, heavy with ripe grapes, encircles it.
The grapes may refer to the wine of the Eucharist, drunk at Mass by Christians in commemoration of Christ’s death and resurrection, and thought to transform into Christ’s blood. Like Samson, Christ was betrayed – by his disciple, Judas – and handed over to his enemies; unlike Samson, his death was believed to redeem humanity from the sin passed down from Adam and Eve, who were tempted by the devil to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge. The tree might represent the Fall of Man, and the grapes redemption through Christ.
The story of Samson and Delilah is included in a contemporary text called Der Ritter von Turm. Written in the fourteenth century as a set of moral examples – good and bad – to young women, it associates Delilah specifically with Judas. It seems likely that Mantegna was inspired by this text because this image is very similar to the woodcut illustrations made by the influential German artist, Albrecht Dürer, to accompany its 1493 edition. The motif of the tree and the grapes transforms the image into a message of Christian salvation: while Samson was overcome by Delilah, Christ was not defeated by Judas.
This picture may have been made as a pair to an image of Judith and Holofernes (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin). Both have the same dimensions and both are painted on fine linen using pigments mixed with glue. In this pairing, Delilah serves as an example of bad behaviour, while Judith – a Jewish heroine who slayed Holofernes, the fearsome Philistine – is a good one. It has been suggested that these two pictures were painted for Isabella d‘Este, Marchioness of Mantua, but we can’t be certain.
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