This painting was finished in the year 1619 by the Italian artist, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (aka Guercino, c. 1591–1666). As the piece was commissioned by Cardinal Giacomo Serra—the papal legate to Ferrara—it comes as no surprise that the subject matter of the painting follows a Biblical story. The figures on the canvas, curiously outfitted in late-medieval armor and dress, re-create a famous scene from the life of Samson, a legendary Israelite warrior whose story is featured in the biblical Book of Judges. He was a scourge to the so-called Philistines, a mysterious seafaring people that invaded and settled a section of the Palestine coast around the 12th century BC, becoming a serious threat to ancient Israel. While the Philistines had formidable weaponry and admirable military organization, the Israelites had legendary heroes. Wielding superhuman strength, Samson proved to be almost an indomitable foe for the Philistines. Yet, as the biblical story and the painting above divulge, there was an exploitable weakness to Samson’s strength—hair. If Samson’s long and braided locks were cut, then so would his strength also be shorn away. As the story goes, the Israelite warrior unwisely told this secret to a woman named Delilah, who then conveyed the secret to the Philistines and plotted with them to capture Samson. The Book of Judges described the story of what happened next:
“After putting him to sleep on her lap, she called for someone to shave off the seven braids of his hair, and so began to subdue him. And his strength left him. Then she called, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!” He awoke from his sleep and thought, “I’ll go out as before and shake myself free.” But he did not know that the Lord had left him. Then the Philistines seized him, gouged out his eyes and took him down to Gaza” (Judges 16:19-21, NIV version).
Giovanni Francesco Barbieri loosely re-creates the scene, with the characters wearing 16th-or early 17th-century fashion. Samson is with his back turned to the audience, struggling to fight now that his hair and power were reduced. As mentioned in the quote, he did not get away from the ambush. Yet, Samson would have the last laugh. As his hair began to grow back, so did his strength. With a few prayers to supplement his recovering power, he was said to have summoned enough strength to demolish the Philistine temple where he was being kept, killing himself and many of his captors.
Written by C. Keith Hansley