Analysis of Samson and Delilah (1528) painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder written for my sophomore year English class:
In his painting Samson and Delilah (1528), Lucas Cranach the Elder’s makes distinct changes in the composition that differ from the original biblical text. The most significant of these changes is choosing a garden as the backdrop for this biblical scene to unfold. This, coupled with other details within the painting evokes the viewer’s recollection of the two most famous garden scenes from the Bible: Adam and Eve in Eden and Judas’s betrayal of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. These artistic choices are the vehicle that allows Cranach to draw an analogous relationship between the story of Samson and Delilah and two other biblical stories in order to shed light on the qualities of redemption and respect in Samson and emphasize the fault that lies with Delilah because of her betrayal.
We first begin by examining what our eyes are instantly drawn to. In Cranach’s painting, Samson and Delilah are the center of attention, as they occupy two-thirds of the painting. Samson looks considerably clean and well dressed in silk robes, unlike the wild man described in the biblical text. He lies peacefully with his eyes closed, having been subdued by the beautiful Delilah, who is looking down placidly, focusing on her task at hand: cutting Samson’s hair with a pair of razors. This moment does not match the written events in Judges, where Delilah herself does not do the shaving herself, but instead “she called for someone to shave off the seven braids of his hair” (Judges 16.) The cutting of Samson’s hair is a crucial turning point symbolizing the moment when Samson’s strength leaves him along with the presence of the Lord. By depicting it such that Delilah is the one cutting Samson’s hair, Cranach visually argues for the representation of Delilah as the wretch directly responsible for the downfall of Samson. Her expression is one of calm composure and focus, showing no signs of regret or sympathy. This portrayal of Delilah reveals that she was not just a means or a tool for the Philistines to capture Samson, but she was conscious of her own action, and thus bears the burden of being the villain in the capture of Samson.
Next, we notice a key decision Cranach makes is placing Samson and Delilah in the middle of a garden, a detail also not provided by the pre-text. Additionally, Samson and Delilah are seated at the trunk of a fruit-bearing tree, bringing to mind the Tree of Knowledge from the Garden of Eden. Other details that stand out in the background are the soldiers lurking around the bushes. Amongst the six of them is a man in a red cap who is not carrying a weapon, nor clothed in armor. Yet, it seems apparent that he is the leader of this surprise attack party seeing as how the two soldiers to the left and right are him appear to be looking to him for instructions. Along with Delilah’s betrayal of Samson being in a garden and this curious detail of a man with uncanny similarities to Judas brings to mind a second instance of betrayal in a garden within the Bible, this being the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and Judas’s betrayal.
Samson and Delilah (1537) painting by Lucas Cranach the Younger
Cranach deliberately uses visually similar background composition to conjure up memories of Eden with the intent of inviting us to draw parallels with Samson, who ends up submitting to Delilah’s persistent nagging, and Adam, who is coaxed by Eve to eat the forbidden fruit and brought death into the world as a result. As a result, viewers come to the realization of the plot resemblance between Eve’s temptation of Adam to eat the forbidden fruit and Delilah’s beguilement of Samson. Cranach guides us this connection because it serves to elevate Samson’s status by relating him to Adam, not only visually and in the position of temptation by a woman, but also in character and importance as well, Adam being the first man and the father of humanity. In a similar way, the visual connections of the garden, soldiers, and Judas-like figure direct us to observe Samson’s position of betrayal and sacrifice as being likened to Jesus’. Given that Jesus is viewed as pure and sinless, provider of the ultimate salvation, even being likened in the slightest effectively works to argue for the elevation of Samson’s status, making both his death and redemption more momentous and respectable. Cranach redeems Samson image through his painting’s revisualization of the original biblical story, especially given how warlike and tawdry Samson seems to be described as in the Book of Judges. If we are to relate Samson to Adam and Jesus, it becomes evidently parallel that Delilah is likened to Eve and Judas, the ultimate betrayer, reinforcing Cranach argument that Delilah was the evildoer. It was also a common view at the time for Eve to be blamed for Adam’s bad judgment and depicted as embodying the serpent, often quite literally in Renaissance paintings. The situational analogy between Delilah and Eve places greater emphasis on the argument that it is the fault of the female that leads to the death brought into the world. In Judges, it’s hard to see Delilah as particularly evil, but by being likened to Eve and Judas, Cranach leaves no doubt in the viewer’s mind and makes it impossible for his early-modern Christian audience to sympathize with her at all.
In conclusion, we see that Cranach captures the story of Samson and Delilah through his changes in the composition of his painting that differ from the original text, but forms connections to two famous biblical stories and their underlying symbolism. In doing so, he succeeds in presenting a more respectable perspective of Samson and his sacrifice whilst demeaning Delilah by casting her as the evil temptress, bringer of sin and death with the intent of emphasizing his interpretation of the Biblical story as warning men to be wary of women like Delilah.
“Judges 16, New International Version (NIV).” Judges 16, New International Version (NIV). N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Feb. 2016.
Cranach, Lucas. Samson and Delilah. 1528. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Lucas Cranach the Elder (Samson and Delilah). Web. 5 Feb. 2016.