This painting, heavily influenced by Rembrandt, was created by the Austrian artist Franz Anton Maulbertsch (c. 1724 – 1796). Maulbertsch’s painting was inspired by the Biblical story of Samson and Delilah. As the story goes, Samson 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 an 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. This secret was unwisely divulged by the Israelite warrior 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).
Such is the scene that Anton Maulbertsch (c. 1724 – 1796) re-creates in his painting, albeit with armor and weapons that are much closer in date to the painter’s age rather than the wardrobes of ancient Israel. Samson is seen, shorn of some of his hair, struggling against his Philistine captors. He would not escape, yet he would have the last laugh. As Samson’s hair began to grow back during his time of captivity, so too did his strength also begin to increase. 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