Great Paintings Explained: Samson and Delilah by Rubens

When allure, faith and betrayal meet

Christopher P Jones
6 min readOct 20, 2022

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Samson and Delilah (1609–1610) by Peter Paul Rubens. Oil on panel. 185 × 205 cm. National Gallery, London, UK. Image source Wikimedia Commons

This compelling painting, by the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, captures the moment when the Biblical hero Samson has his superhuman strength stolen whilst he sleeps.

In the background, a troop of soldiers pause at a doorway before entering. They appear to be waiting for a sign that “the deed is done.”

They will arrest Samson, gouge out his eyes, and take him prisoner in the city of Gaza.

The Secret to His Strength

As you can see, the image shows a man asleep on a woman’s lap. They are both partially unclothed. Beside them are two figures, one holding a candle to illuminate the lovers, the other taking a pair of scissors to the sleeping man’s hair.

Samson’s sleeping form — most especially his great arm that hangs so mightily at the front of the painting — emphasises the significance of his downfall.

His substantial body is so palpable in its heaviness, and so emphatically languid, that it is almost impossible to not feel the dormancy of his physical strength. The artist Rubens understood that the sleeping form of Samson is where the very crux of the story can be visualised.

Detail of ‘Samson and Delilah’ (1609–1610) by Peter Paul Rubens. Oil on panel. 185 × 205 cm. National Gallery, London, UK. Image source Wikimedia Commons

The story of Samson and Delilah is told in the Old Testament (Judges 16:4–6, 16–21). Samson was a Nazirite, a word that comes from the Hebrew nazar, meaning “to abstain from” or “to consecrate oneself to”.

Samson possessed immense strength in exchange for his vows: his burly exploits included slaying a lion with his bare hands and massacring a thousand Philistines with only the jawbone of a donkey.

The second of these deeds made Samson enemies; the Philistines wanted revenge. To achieve this, they persuaded a beautiful Philistine woman named Delilah to ensnare Samson and coax out of him the secret of his remarkable strength.

His secret lay in his hair.

One precept of being a Nazirite was to refrain from cutting one’s hair. If his hair…

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