Art History, religious art, women of the bible


For those who grew up in a Jewish or Christian culture, probably know Delilah’s history quite well, and for those who don’t know the story well, or even know nothing about it here is a little summary:

Delilah is a woman mentioned in the Book of Judges in the Hebrew Bible. She is known as the woman who betrayed Samson, a Nazirite who possesses great strength and serves as the final judge of Israel. According to the Bible, Samson loved Delilah, who was bribed by the Philistines to coaxed Samson into revealing the secret of his strength, which was in his long hair, and that after knowing it she ordered a servant to cut Samson’s hair while he was sleeping.

She has been the subject of both rabbinic and Christian commentary. In rabbinic literature she is identified with Micah’s mother in the narrative of Micah’s Idol. In Christian literature she has been compared to Judas Iscariot, the man who betrayed Jesus.

There are notable depictions of Delilah, including John Milton’s closet drama Samson Agonistes and Cecil B. DeMille’s 1949 film Samson and Delilah. Her name has been associated with treacherous and voluptuous women.

Samson and Delilah by Rubens, c.1609-10

In the Bible

Delilah was a woman of Sorek (a place in the Judean Hills) and is the only woman named in the Samson’s story. According to the bible, Samson loved her but there is not any reference if she loved him in return. They’re not married and the idea that they had a sexual relationship is confirming to Josey Bridges Snyder “at most implicit in the biblical text”.

Delilah was bribed by the lords of the Philistines to discover what is the source of the Samson’s strength. After three failed attempts, she finally goads Samson into telling her that his vigour is derived from his hair. And while he was sleeping, she ordered a servant to cut his hair, thereby enabling her to turn him over to the Philistines.

Samson and Delilah by Luca Giordano, 1696

The Bible does not mention her fate and as some scholars noted, it never discusses if Delilah felt guilt for her actions or not. They have also seen similarities between Delilah and other women in the Bible, such as Jael and Judith. And they have discussed the question of whether the story of Samson’s relationship with Delilah displays a negative attitude towards foreigners.

In Art

It is curious as in the Bible whenever a woman was strong or fought for her own interests, she’s remembered as a traitor or an unreliable person, or even worse. In my opinion that is the case of Delihla, she accepted money to discover the source of Samson’s strength; but in the biblical text at no time does it speak that she had feelings for him, however it is reported that he loved her. So, I don’t see her actions as a betrayal.

However, this association of the name “Delilah” with betrayal is present in the depictions and representations in art or in literature. The name “Delilah” appeared in several books and in the most of the time it is associated with “voluptuous and treacherous woman” as in H. G. Wells The Invisible Man (1897). It is easy to find a connotation of deceit or betrayal associated to it even in music as in Tom Jones’s song “Delilah”.

Delilah also appeared as a character in John Milton’s Samson Agonistes, which is an allegory of the downfall of the Puritans and the restoration of the English monarchy. She appears as an unrepentant deceiver, but sympathetic.

In Art History, the story of Delilah and Samson has been depicted by several artists. Although in the Bible Delilah ordered a servant to cut Samson’s hair, in most of the paintings is she who carried out the action. This story has interested very important names as Anthony van Dyck, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Rubens, Chagall, Luca Giordano or Rembrandt. Among the women artists, I only could find the depiction by Artemisia Gentileschi, it is well known that Gentileschi loved to depict these biblical female heroines. In Gentileschi’s Delilah, she is accompanied by the servant, but is her who is cutting Samson’s hair while he sleeps with his head on her lap.

Samson and Delilah by Artemisia Gentileschi, c.1630-38 (collection of Banco Comerciale Italiana)

If anyone knows other depictions made by women artists, please let in the comments, I am very interested.