Andrea Mantegna’s Samson and Delilah
Andrea Mantegna. Samson and Delilah, c. 1505. National Gallery, London
Andrea Mantegna painted this Samson and Delilah (circa 1505) with features that are unexpected. Most depictions of Samson and Delilah should be identifiable by merely a woman cutting a sleeping man's hair, as would be derived from the biblical text of Judges 16. This simple image is all that is needed for a straightforward iconographic identification. When additional, idiosyncratic elements beyond this simple image appear, several questions arise about the possible reasons. In this painting, for example, why does Mantegna include a fountain spring pouring from a rock into a water trough? Why is there a vine entwined around a tree and a rocky crevice just between the fountain spring and the water trough? These are not elements in the Samson and Delilah biblical source story of Judges 16 nor are they found in Josephus. Are there other iconographic elements in the painting that connect to different biblical and related texts such as Proverbs 5 and 7?
Andrea Mantegna (1430-1506) was a sophisticated reader of both textual and material history, known for "using classical theme[s] as an opportunity to display his classical learning"; also renowned as the late fifteenth-century artist "most devoted to antiquity". (1) On the other hand, he had no obvious connections to Rabbinic commentary or the Jewish community in Mantua. Although it is difficult to assess how literate Mantegna was for his day, he was a Paduan and Mantuan painter of great influence in northern Italy and especially beyond his own region and in Venice, where he married into the accomplished Bellini family of artists. This unusual painting (48 x 37 cm) has been in the National Gallery of London since the late nineteenth century (c. 1883) and is an exceptional distillation of allegory and literary allusion as a biblical hermeneutic ekphrasis. This ekphrasis is overlaid by Renaissance historical narrative itself derived from an older complicated Medieval commentary, possibly even informed by Hebrew midrash, as unlikely as this might seem. (2) One of the most comprehensive prior discussions of this painting and its provenance is by Keith Christiansen.(3)
This grisaille (gray-tone) “cameo-style” painting of Andrea Mantegna was painted on linen and used glue sizing (guazzo) rather than gesso for its base. It has been often described as either imitating variegated marble (africano or africano rosso or breccia pavonazza di Ezine) or an imperial Roman sardonyx gemstone cameo with alternating reddish-brown and white layers, although marble imitation is more compelling as a description. The combination of grisaille subject with marbleized background is entirely in keeping with a Classicizing mode where Mantegna deliberately quoted Roman antiquity. The archaeologist Ward-Perkins elsewhere documented the Roman love of multicolored marble like this, as easily categorized in the encyclopedic Marmi Antichi. (4) While the painting lands in the category of history painting, in this case it is a famous biblical rather than a Classical subject. Because Mantegna’s adoptive father and teacher, the painter Francesco Squarcione, had been an antiquarian and collector, the artist would have been able early on to observe many such antiquities such as Roman cameo seals, gems or fragments of highly-colored Roman marbles and sarcophagus cast reliefs to provide ample all’antica models. Furthermore, one of Mantegna’s own patrons in 1459, Cardinal Lodovico Trevisan, had been “an ardent collector of ancient gems and medals.” (5)
Although not the first image of Samson and Delilah (Nicola and Giovanni Pisano earlier portrayed the story in relief on the Perugia fountain in 1278, which is ironic given the biblical exegesis of Proverbs 5 to follow below), this painting is a uniquely interpretive ekphrasis of the biblical narrative in the Book of Judges. The biblical passage describes how Samson, a great judge (shophet in Hebrew) of the Danite tribe and arch-enemy of the Philistines, was nonetheless ultimately neutralized by lust. His many trysts with harlots and Philistine women (somehow the biblical narrative attempts to equivocate the two) portray Samson as a man whose passions ultimately outweigh his prodigious strength. The frustrated Philistine elders had hired the femme fatale Delilah to learn the secret of Samson’s great strength after he had single-handedly slain a thousand Philistines with only the weapon of an ass jawbone (Judges 15:15) . On other occasions when they had tried to lure him with a woman and trap him within the city of Gaza, Samson had torn the city gates from their sockets (Judges 16:3) and also burned their grain crops with 300 foxes whose tails he had lit with fire (Judges 15:4-5). Samson was assuredly not a paragon of virtue, but his people the Israelites tolerated his venality and moral weaknesses because he kept the Philistines at bay. After multiple failures to guilefully elicit the secret of his great strength, Delilah finally learned (only successful on the fourth try, as the third was not a charm for the desperate Philistine lords who finally offered Delilah 1,100 pieces of silver) that Samson was a Nazirite from birth, one sworn with a divine vow by his parents to never cut his hair or drink wine and spirits (Judges 13:4, 7 ff.). The text says a Nazirite must also not be defiled by non-kosher food, but is curiously silent about consorting with prostitutes, which was a regular pastime of Samson in his sad story of a compromised judge.
The way the sleeping Samson sprawls between Delilah’s legs suggests she has first enervated him by sexual intercourse after which his sleep would be only natural. The phrase “Delilah’s lap” was even a literary metaphor for harlotry.(6) With décolletage thinly veiled, Delilah cuts his hair with her scissors similar to sheep shears – perhaps symbolic of her own instrument of sexual prowess in this case unnaturally external like a man rather than internal - and thus destroys his superhuman power that was almost magically located in his hair until that moment. It is not surprising that in the Ancient Near East, cutting off a man's hair - especially his beard - was a degrading trope for loss of virility and often even believed superstitiously to have the parallel effect of a kind of eunuchizing. For misogynistic scholiasts and medieval biblicists, the association here of Samson's "emasculation" is at least in the right anatomical locus for her power, which is visually centered at her loins.
Detail of "Delilah's Lap" and Samson's loss
Mantegna has possibly cleverly allegorized multiple agendas in his painting by employing common symbols that the late Medieval and Renaissance biblically-informed world would have guessed without much trouble.
First, the tree, likely representing Samson, is intertwined by a sinuous vine laden with intoxicating fruit that frequently equate with desire (Song of Songs 1:2, “for your love is better than wine”). (7) Oak trees often represented strength and fidelity, but this one (Samson) has a prominent branch lopped off suggestively like his hair.
Detail of intertwined oak and vine
Second, there is a fountain pouring from a rocky spring into a water trough that resembles a sarcophagus with its rings. Although tenuous, the left side of the rocky orifice immeditaely between the spring of pouring water and the catchment water trough has a rather skull-like aspect like a face (almost exactly parallel to the plane of Samson's face and facing the same direction). There seems to be no other apparent reason for this rock orifice other than to suggest a skull-like rock feature in its shadowy frame. Allusion to death seems reasonable if the skull-like rock image can be connected to the sarcophagus water trough directly below it, especially interesting since Mantegna was familiar with recognizable Roman sarcophagi and their functions, and Samson's left foot is clearly touching the sarcophagal trough. The water trough is not just a compositional element, however, as it ties together several biblical texts, also somewhat misogynistic.
Details of the "skull", "sarcophagus" and fountain
Third, the water pouring from the spring, then into the man-made sarcophagal trough and out into a subsidiary pavement catch-basin is reminiscent of the biblical passage of Proverbs 5:15-18, about which nearly all commentators agree is admonishing men against pouring out their sexual energies indiscriminately: “Do not let your fountains be wasted by pouring into the streets”. Even the water here in Mantegna's grisaille ultimately pours into the earth at foot level before flowing to the right of the picture and possibly back to the left again across the painting at pavement level, in which case it would be a fairly-exact similitude of the proverb. Furthermore, young men are warned in Proverbs 5:4 to stay away from the harlot whose end is bitter death (“Her end is bitter as wormwood, her feet go down to death”). Here his foot is touching "death" because of Delilah. Tenuous as might be, could one of the several shrub plants on the left-hand side of the picture be “wormwood” (botanical Artemisia absinthia)? Death may even be somewhat proleptically marked on Samson’s sleeping features as death is the euphemistic long sleep. The Proverbs passage also extends the admonishment in that the victim of the “immoral” woman will be bound, perhaps alluded in the vine bound to the tree and imminent bondage by the Philistines that soon overtakes Samson. Proverbs 5:22 could warn any such Samson that “his own iniquities will take him, he will be bound with the cords of his sins.” Even the tolerant Josephus called Delilah a harlot (possibly also alluding Proverbs 7). Much of the picture then could be emblematic of both Judges 16 and Proverbs 5 (and 7) as a double ekphrasis of the combined biblical texts, although this would require much of Mantegna or the commissioner (perhaps a cleric like Bishop Ludovico Gonzaga or other possibilities explored below). (8)
Detail of inscription on the oak tree
In reference to Delilah, who is as much the primary subject here as Samson in her role as the powerful villainess, there is a fascinating Latin inscription on the tree-trunk: Foemina Diabolo Tribus Assibus Est Mala Peior. This was an old misogynist proverb from at least the fourteenth century (9) whose rough translation probably means “When a woman is evil, she is three pennies worse than the Devil.” This was a common medieval belief not at all original to Mantegna and may have been a textual requisite of the commissioner, perhaps like much of the imagery. Mantegna's Delilah, however, is otherwise hardly provocative, as Holmes noted, he "was better at soldiers than nymphs," although her nipples do seem to be showing through her blouse.
As many have shown, the hue scheme of Samson and Delilah is similar to other Mantegna grisailles and specifically to a larger Mantegna grisaille piece imitative of Roman cameos and marble, also in the National Gallery, The Introduction of the Cult of Cybele into Rome (also around 1505) celebrating the Venetian Cornaro family who claimed descent from the ancient Roman clan of Gens Cornelius. A story found in Livy (XXIX.14), Ovid (Fasti 4.247 ff) and elsewhere also narrates the honor and piety of the Roman matron Claudia Quinta who single-handedly rescued the grounded Tiber barge bearing Cybele’s image to Rome in 204 BCE. Although the debated Claudia is not so visible in Mantegna’s painting, possibly the "woman" in front of the procession with her hands out to the almost-kneeling person (Cornelius?), it has been hypothesized that these two (with Delilah and Claudia) and a few other Mantegna marbleized grisailles such as his Judith and Holofernes (Dublin) may have been part of a visual series cataloguing famous and infamous women, both virtuous and wicked, (10) possibly influenced by Boccaccio’s De Mulieribus Claris (Famous Women) written in 1362 (published in Latin in 1473) where he excoriates a few “wicked” biblical women (Athaliah but not Delilah) and Christine de Pisan’s response to Boccaccio’s chauvinism in her Book of the City of Ladies in 1405, rightfully indignant of misogyny in deep irony, or some other yet unidentified text.
Delilah deserves her own intriguing commentary. Her name seems to be a literary construct, a contrived feminized amalgam of several possible paronomasic Hebrew word plays with multiple connotations, possibly a fourfold word play so typical in Hebrew literature, although not directly applicable to Mantegna's painting. First, the verb dalah (דלה) can mean both “to hang down” and “to draw water”. In the painting, Samson’s hair no longer hangs down but the pendant grapes probably alluding Delilah and long oak branches probably alluding Samson certainly hang downward. Second, dalach (דלח) can mean “to stir up trouble”. The only phonetic difference here between the Hebrew verbs (dalah / dalach) is the voiced glottal "ch" sound in the heth (ח) instead of the nearly identical but softer aspirated "h" in he (ה). Third, dallah (דלּה) can mean both “hair” and “thrum” as an omen “of premature death”. Finally, dalal (דלל) usually also means “to be coquettish” and “to look amorously at a man.” Thus all four connected Hebrew homophones - here feminized for the persona of this woman - densely sum up the likely biblical intent of casting Delilah as a stereotype femme fatale embodying great danger,(11) especially significant for misogynist clergy. Although even more unlikely, on the other hand, could this unique painting - combining medieval scholiastic symbolism and sophisticated Renaissance love of philological allegory - have been intended for a rabbinically-trained Jewish audience inclined to midrashic commentary? As Maimonides (12th c.) said, "Give not thy strength unto women," and quoting Proverbs (Meshallim) 7:26, he also says of the harlot, "Yea, many strong men have been slain by her." (12) This giving of his strength and ultimate death was exactly what Samson did figuratively and literally as both the Judges 16 text and Mantegna painting ironically portray.
As incredibly subtle (and ultimately unfortunate for a gender stereotype as Delilah portrayed) as all these Hebrew wordplays appear, however familiar to Medieval rabbinic commentary in that rich literary tradition (13), it is doubtful that the Classically astute Mantegna himself knew any of this wordplay, since he would only likely have access to the Latin Vulgate of the Bible, however famous the story, although he was sufficiently familiar with Josephus' Jewish Wars and Antiquities of the Jews to use them elsewhere as sources for paintings. (14) In fact, Josephus in Antiquities V 306-16 tells the story of Samson and Delilah (Dalala in Greek) whom he mentions as a Philistine and his text summarizes that of Judges 16 but without the Hebrew wordplays or mention of fountains and vinous trees. So Josephus could be one source for Mantegna, but neither Josephus or the Judges text offer any explanation for Mantegna's fountain-sarcophagus motif or the intertwined vine and tree or Delilah's name. On the other hand, both Proverbs 5 and especially 7 could themselves be considered glosses on the Judges text, particularly with the reference to many strong men having been slain by the harlot. Nonetheless, the water and death associations are uncanny parallels in Hebrew from the Proverbs (Hebrew Meshallim) and Delilah's construct name as well as derivable in the painting. In short, Mantegna's assumed intricate knowledge of Proverbs 5 and 7 is dubious but not impossible and more likely directed by the type of erudite audience that a clerical or rabbinic commissioner might possess. That there was a Jewish community in circa 1500 Renaissance Mantua is well-attested by Schlomo Simonsohn and others. (15) Simonsohn reports the one documented instance when Mantegna had any connection with Jews in Mantua; unfortunately it was in 1495 when Mantegna was commissioned by the Gonzagas for 15 ducats to paint a Madonna (Madonna della Vittoria, Louvre) that was paid out of a penalty almost ten times that amount (120 ducats) assessed against the Jewish banker Daniel Norsa ultimately for requesting of the bishop that a Madonna be removed from his newly-bought house in Mantua, which somehow offended Mantuan Christians even though it was a perfectly legitimate request for a devout Jew. (16) In a possibly magnanimous and charitable return gesture, could Mantegna have painted this biblical grisaille for the Norsa family? The Latin inscription might argue against this, as suggested below, but it remains unknown.
Nonetheless, no one name surfaces as a possible Mantegna buyer or information source in Mantua for any possible midrashic material in this painting. Mantuan Jews of note include the erudite Rabbi Messer Judah Leon or his publisher Abraham Conat (also erudite) circa 1470-80, but these are too early and Rabbi Leon (father of Rabbi David Messer Leon) seems to have died no later than 1497 in Naples. Other members of the Conat family or their circle could be possible, but any definitive Jewish or midrashic influence on Mantegna in Mantua around 1500 is difficult to establish. Interestingly, according to Tirosh-Rothschild, Rabbi David Messer Leon (as mentioned, son of Rabbi Messer Judah Leon) knew and admired Boccaccio and "was informed of contemporary debates among the Italian literati (for example, the debate about women)" including the opinions of Pico della Mirandola on Plato and Kabbalah lore. David Messer Leon also visited Florence in 1492 and had "written poems in defense of women" (17) so he might be another commissioning source for Mantegna. The misogynistic Latin quotation is not, however, at all connected to the Jews of Mantua and both Proverbs and Josephus refer to the evil woman Delilah (although her name is Hebrew) not as a local but as an alien and a Philistine respectively. In this respect the Latin quotation is more likely Christian and clerical, but a well-educated Jew like David Messer Leon should not be ruled out as he was also a Humanist scholar familiar with Boccaccio's work.
Samson’s name, on the other hand, may have meant ”like the sun”. In this case, the Mantegna narrative may unintentionally evoke a dramatic marbleized sunset background for Samson who, when his hair grew back and, although blinded and chained to pillars after his capture, finally took down a Philistine temple full of partying enemies in his revengeful death (Judges 16:25-30).
Given Mantegna's (or someone else's?) biblical scholarship displayed in this unusual painting, such interpretation of biblical text as he provides acts much like visual commentary, an accepted form of ekphrasis. As Stephen Campbell suggests of Renaissance art, "Such a process is necessarily one of interpretation, which is itself a form of translation; the Latin terms interpres and interpretatio refer both to an intermediary or go-between as well as to the rendering of a text or object." (18) Hermeneutics of such biblical texts (here Proverbs 5 & 7 and Judges 16) is always, as Campbell states, a form of "translating" because there are filters through which interpretation occurs, mainly of different times, cultures and languages, and interpretation is also idiosyncratic and subjective because the interpreter inserts his or her own time, culture and language into such texts. By "interpreting" the Samson story as he has done visually, Mantegna has as its intermediary "translated" (a la Campbell) the text from one culture (Hebrew) to another (Renaissance Italy), and any viewer must engage in a similar process again in order to understand it in yet another culture (in our case, modern). Thus, cultural translation is one of the tasks of any artist, especially in rendering a visual text derived from a literary text from one time and medium into others.
In conclusion, Mantegna (or his commissioner) would have been far more likely to only know either the tradition of Samson or the biblical texts of first Judges, and second Proverbs, than be privy to sophisticated Hebrew wordplay, although we should not put such pictorial punning beyond Mantegna. Samson's tragedy is nonetheless a rich subject for Mantegna's intricate visual narrative.
(1) Keith Christiansen in Jane Martineau, ed. Andrea Mantegna. London: Thames and Hudson / Electa/ Royal Academy of Art, 1992, 416; George Holms. Renaissance. London: Phoenix / Orion, 1998, 130. As Holmes noted, Mantegna concentrates on Classical themes and had "pretensions to Classical scholarship of his own," 129-30. Notice his use of antiquities and Roman monuments in so many of his paintings, including his Camera Picta, Triumph of Caesar, Martyrdom of San Sebastian, among others. Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli is even featured in the background of Camera Picta, Palazzo Ducale. Also see "nel segno di Andrea Mantegna: arte e cultura a Mantova in età rinascimentale" in Civiltà Mantovana 41.122 (Sept. 2006), M. Bini and F. Portanova, 23ff and N. Zuccoli, 68-87.
(2) Jack Greenstein. Mantegna and Painting as Historical Narrative. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, esp. 25-6.
(3) Christiansen in Martineau, 1992, esp. 84, 397, 399. 405-7.
(4) Gabriele Borghini et al. Marmi Antichi . Roma: Edizioni de Luca, 1997. For africano rossso see Pl. 1a on 133 (often called merely africano or marmor luculleum. For brecchia pavonazza di Ezine see Pl. 33, 180.
(5) Ronald Lightbown. Mantegna. Oxford: Phaidon & Christies, 1986, 21
(6) Norma Broude and Mary Gerrard, eds. Feminism in Art History: Questioning the Litany. Westview Press, 1982. At least by the sixteenth century, “Delilah’s lap” was a metaphor meaning involvement with harlots but likely originated earlier, 135.
(7) Robert Alter. The Art of Biblical Poetry. New York: Basic Books reprint, 1987; Patrick Hunt. Poetry in the Song of Songs, New York: Peter Lang Publishing forthcoming 2008, where the word “love” in Hebrew may better translate as “lovemaking”.
(8) Christiansen, 399: "Dublin Judith and Samson and Delilah were a direct response to the highly developed tastes of Gianfrancesco and Bishop Ludovico Gonzaga at Bozzolo and of Isabella d'Este at Mantua." It might be more likely that a bishop would approve of the implicit misogyny than the thoroughly Renaissance noblewoman Isabella d'Este, although herself known for her "scholarly tastes" according to Holmes, 130.
(9) Lightbown, 448-9, quoting Erica Tietze-Conrat. Mantegna: Paintings, Drawings, Engravings. London, 1955.
(10) National Gallery of London online notes on this painting: (http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/cgi-bin/WebObjects.dll/
elsewhere also Giuseppe Fiocco, e.g., Mantegna. New York: Harry Abrams, 1958 ed., 41.
(11) F. Brown, S. R. Driver, C. A. Briggs. Gesenius' Hebrew Lexikon. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906 ed., esp. 194-195.
(12) Moses Maimonides. Dalalat al-Hairin (The Guide for the Perplexed). M. Friedlander, tr. New York: Dover, 1956, 7, 47.
(13) M. Bar-Ilan, Some Jewish Women in Antiquity, Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press (Brown Judaic Studies 317), 1998, esp. ch. 6; Alice Bach. Women in the Hebrew Bible: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 1998; Tikva Frymer-Kensky. Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of their Stories. New York: Schocken Books, 2004, esp. 74-84.
(14) Lightbown, 431 (also citing Martindale).
(15) Shlomo Simonsohn. History of the Jews in Mantua. Medici Archive Project, 1999. 501 passim; also by Simonsohn, History of the Jews in the Duchy of Mantua, 2 vols., Jerusalem, 1962-4; and Hava Tirosh-Rothschild. Between Worlds: The Life and Thought of Rabbi David ben Judah Messer Leon. New York: SUNY Press, 1991, esp. 24 ff. As mentioned, another famous Jew who was more contemporary with this painting and who would have had Mantua connections would have been the equally educated Rabbi David, the son of Messer Judah Leon, but he had left Mantua with his father around 1480 for Naples and ultimately Padua and then Constantinople by 1496. Nonetheless, the Jewish community in Mantua was temporarily enlarged after the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 and the Renaissance Gonzaga court had mixed degrees of tolerenace and intolerance. There had already been a Jewish synagogue and cemetery in Mantua since 1420 (therefore a bonafide kehillah), such that this city was often perceived as a central place of refuge in all Italy, but this tolerance vacillated greatly between successive ruling members of the Gonzaga family.
(16) Simonsohn, 1962, 15-16.
(17) Tirosh-Rothschild, 233 & 46.
(18) Stephen J. Campbell and Stephen J. Milner, eds. Artistic Exchange and Cultural Translation in the Italian Renaissance City. Cambridge University Press, 2004, 1.
Copyright © 2006 Patrick Hunt