Samson and Delilah (1609-10) by Rubens
Interpretation of Baroque Biblical Painting

Pin it

Samson and Delilah (detail)
By Rubens.
Regarded as one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Samson and Delilah (1609-10)


The Bible Story
Analysis of Samson and Delilah
Other Paintings from the Baroque


Name: Samson and Delilah (1609-10)
Artist: Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)
Medium: Panel painting, oil on wood
Genre: Christian art
Movement: Flemish Baroque art
Location: National Gallery, London

For the meaning of other celebrated masterpieces,
please see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).


A hugely important figure in Baroque painting, Peter Paul Rubens was greatly influenced by his study of Italian Renaissance art as well as the paintings of Italian Baroque artists like Caravaggio. He painted Samson and Delilah shortly after returning from eight years in Italy, and the influence of classicism and Venetian colorito is plain to see. The painting was commissioned by alderman Nicolaas Rockox (1560-1640) for his private residence in the city. Other masterpieces of history painting by Rubens include: Descent from the Cross (Rubens) (1612-14); The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus (1618); Minerva Protects Pax from Mars (1629-30, National Gallery, London); and Judgement of Paris (1632-5, National Gallery, London).

The Bible Story

According to the Old Testament of the Bible (Judges 16), Samson - the son of Manoah - was chosen by God to help the Israelites overcome their enemies, the Philistines. In return for taking a vow not to shave or cut his hair (the Nazirite vow), Samson was given supernatural physical strength, which he used to perform a variety of heroic feats. Unfortunately he then fell in love with the temptress Delilah, in the Valley of Sorek. When the Philistines heard about this, they bribed Delilah with 1,100 shekels of silver to discover the secret of Samson's strength. Eventually she discovers that his strength will disappear if his hair is cut, so one night while Samson is asleep she calls for a servant to shave his hair, after which the Philistines rush in and overpower him. Later, Samson - whose hair has now regrown - gains his revenge by bringing down the pillars of the Philistine Temple of Dagon crushing his captors and himself. The story has been the subject of numerous religious paintings created during the era of Baroque art, such as "Samson and Delilah" (1629-30, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin) by Rembrandt (1606-69); and "Samson and Delilah" (1654, Musee des Beaux-Arts de Strasbourg) by Guercino (1591-1666).

Analysis of Samson and Delilah by Rubens

In this masterpiece of Biblical art, Rubens shows a sleeping Samson lying in the arms of Delilah, the woman he loves, having his hair cut by a servant in order to drain his strength. In the background, Philistine soldiers are waiting to pounce as soon as their target has been weakened. Rubens uses symbols to highlight the Delilah's deception and Samson's vulnerability. The Philistine barber, for instance, who is cutting Samson's hair has his hands crossed, symbolizing deceit. And in a niche on the wall behind him there is a statue of Venus, the Goddess of love and her son, Cupid. This alludes to the fact that love is the cause of Samson's downfall. The old woman standing behind Delilah holding a candle to assist the barber in his work is not mentioned in the Bible, but has been added by Rubens to symbolize the role that lies in store for Delilah in the future.



On the surface the scene may look peaceful but underneath it contains huge tension. Will Delilah's deception work? Or will our Jewish hero wake up and slaughter his clandestine assailants? Notice the gentle placement of her hand on his back - it may look like a loving gesture but it is only being done to soothe Samson and stop him from waking up and killing her for betraying him.

Rubens' masterful use of chiaroscuro to do justice to Samson's magnificent physique (modelled on Greek sculpture and Michelangelo's Genesis fresco), probably derives from the works of Caravaggio (1573-1610). In fact the picture was earlier attributed to the Dutch artist Gerrit van Honthorst (1592-1656), a painter who worked in Rome in the shadow of Caravaggio, at the beginning of the 17th century. Italian influence is also evident in Rubens' use of colour, which owes much to the Venetian painting he encountered during the 1600s. The sensuality of the scene is greatly enhanced by the rich colours and textures that are visible throughout the room. In particular, Delilah's luscious red dress, the saffron satin throw, the patterned rugs and overhanging purple drapery, as well as the soft illumination (itself almost certainly the influence of Adam Elsheimer) - all add to the sense and atmosphere of pleasure.

The painting was sold following the death of its original owner Nicolaas Rockox, and by the 18th century formed part of the Liechtenstein Collection in Vienna, along with another Rubens work, Massacre of the Innocents (1611). It was purchased by the National Gallery in 1980, for £5 million. Despite the doubt cast upon the provenance of the painting by the Greek scholar Euphronsyne Doxiades (b.1946), recent dendrochronological analysis appears to have confirmed that the work is a genuine Rubens.

Other Paintings from the Baroque

The Crucifixion of St. Peter (1601) by Caravaggio.
Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome.

Judith Beheading Holofernes (1620) by Artemisia Gentileschi
Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

The Surrender of Breda (1634-5) by Velazquez.
Prado, Madrid.

Abduction of the Sabine Women (1634-5) by Nicolas Poussin.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Et in Arcadia Ego (1637) by Nicolas Poussin.
Louvre, Paris.

The Night Watch (1642) Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
By Rembrandt.

Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650) by Velazquez.
Doria Pamphilj Gallery, Rome.


• For more Biblical paintings by artists like Rubens, see: Homepage.

© All rights reserved.