Today’s wonderful student offering comes from Elizabeth Newton-Jackson, who focuses on one of my favourite biblical characters – Delilah. Elizabeth has just finished the first year of her BA, majoring in religion and art history. Elizabeth has a passion for the study of religion and is particularly enthusiastic about exploring the relationships between religion and art. She therefore really enjoyed taking our Bible and Popular Culture course this year (THEOREL 101), describing it as ‘the perfect introduction to the study of religion’. The course has also increased her determination to study religion at postgraduate level.
So sit back and enjoy Elizabeth’s thought-provoking essay on Delilah and Judith – two biblical women who, despite similarities in their stories, are so often depicted very differently in popular culture.
Struck Down by a Woman
Elizabeth Newton Jackson
To be “ensnared by a woman” (Josephus Ant. 5.8), to be deceived and defeated by one of the fairer sex has long been considered one of the greater downfalls of man. This perceived weakness of men however, seems to reflect more negatively on the women involved. Artistic portrayals of the infamous Delilah of Judges 16 exemplify this perfectly. The deceptively dangerous woman is a trope well established in art, and yet the figure of Judith from the deuterocanonical book of Judith, who betrayed a mighty warrior for her people, is hailed as a hero. The two women, infamous and famous, are treated with vast differences in art. These artistic treatments take liberties in altering and adding to the original biblical narratives to a point where these biblical characters, Delilah the perceived harlot and Judith the virtuous widow, seem almost pitted against each other as the two sides of woman. Not only do these artistic representations reflect back onto readings of the biblical text, they also embody and perpetuate certain ideas of the intrinsic nature of woman in the world outside the text.
Delilah’s image as the artful seductress is so entrenched that her name has become almost synonymous with the danger of female allure (Kahr 1972, 282). Art has played a significant role in bolstering this image with Rubens’ Samson and Delilah, 1609-1610 unashamedly presenting Delilah as the “harlot among Philistines” (Josephus Ant. 5.8) The sensuality of the scene heightens the air of shocking betrayal as Samson the great warrior lies in a post coital slumber in the temptress’s lap, his hair gently cut under the soft light of a candle. Tension is suggested by the menacing presence of the Philistine soldiers at the open door, waiting for a signal to strike (Kahr 282). Delilah’s exposed breasts are explicit signifiers of her sexualized role in the scene but viewers are further assured of her status as a harlot through the rich red of Delilah’s dress (Exum 1996, 192) and the presence of the elderly procuress (Georgievska-Shine 2007, 461). A statue of Venus and Cupid perched in an alcove of the dingy wall further emphasises the brothel atmosphere (469). Even the inclusion of so many figures in an otherwise intimate scene helps to define a tone of detachment. Delilah is simply doing her duty, she has seduced Samson and has no qualms about betraying him. Although this Delilah is not vengeful or triumphant in the way she is in another work of the same subject by Rubens, titled Gefangennahme Simsons (Exum 1996, 194), she is clearly a woman who has surrendered to her senses and coerced Samson to do the same. Her utmost fault is in her sexuality.
This emphasis on sexuality does not come from the biblical text. Judges 16:1-22 discloses nothing of Delilah’s profession or personality. We are told only that she lives in the valley of Sorek, was given money by the lords of the Philistines in return for the secret of Samson’s strength and (depending on the translation) cut his hair or had it cut by a manservant (Clanton 2009, 68). There are many gaps within the story of Samson and Delilah and yet the specificity of the gaps that Rubens’ painting fills results in a clear portrayal of Delilah as a heartless femme fatale. Painting Delilah in this light solidifies ideas of the character that may have no real basis in the biblical text. Artists are known to approach subjects with licence, but in the illustration of biblical narratives there is perhaps an assumption of greater respect for the original source (Georgievska-Shine 2007, 463). Respect of this kind is particularly relevant when considering past uses of biblical art in depicting sacred stories to those who were illiterate or did not have access to the Bible in their own language. Many Northern European artists, likely Rubens himself, used not only the Bible itself as a source but commentary by Flavius Josephus, a Jewish scholar of the 1st century AD. Josephus barely changed the narrative of Samson and Delilah, but he did change it enough by pointing to Delilah’s identity both as a harlot and a Philistine in the very first sentence (Ant. 5.8). The world inside the text of Rubens’ Samson and Delilah depicts a narrative that is at odds with the world inside the biblical text and yet the strength and frequency of the portrayal of Delilah as a deceitful harlot reflects back on the biblical text, making it more difficult to distinguish between these two separate worlds.
Although the book of Judith does not have the ambiguities of Judges 16, revealing much about Judith and her defeat of Holofernes, the famous heroine is most certainly a character of paradoxes. She is virtuous (Judith 8:2-8) but knowingly uses her beauty to seduce (10:3-4). She is righteous but lies (11:5) and ruthlessly kills (13:8). Her actions seem to far exceed the mere ‘seduction’ of Rubens’ Delilah. However, Judith is an Israelite and thus cannot fit the femme fatale image her actions may suggest. Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1598-99 proves this through its lack of reference to the character’s lies and seduction. Caravaggio paints a figure of pure innocence, dressed in pale, modest clothing and bathed in light, the use of chiaroscuro splitting the canvas in two in a blatant display of good and evil. Viewing only the half of the canvas containing Judith herself, one would find difficulty recognising the murder being committed. Her expression displays pity and she stands as far away from Holofernes as possible, severing his head from his body in a detached, almost meek way.
The painting gives us no doubt as to Judith’s status as a heroine. Yet in the biblical text, Judith lies repeatedly, disrespects the dead by taking Holofernes’ head back to her people (Judith 13:15) and ultimately disregards the lives of her own warriors by sending them after the retreating enemy (15:2-3). However, in artistic representations these unsavoury deeds are brushed aside, likely due to Judith’s status as an Israelite. The point here is not to condemn or defame Judith but instead to explore the reasons behind her depiction in art. In Donatello’s bronze Judith and Holofernes, 1455-60, Judith is again a righteous heroine. This work was commissioned by the Medici family and used as a symbol of power and virtue, proving the dedication of this influential family to the people of Renaissance Florence (McHam 2001, 32). The fact that the biblical character of Judith could be appropriated for this purpose and used as recognisable symbol for power and purity proves how wide the divide is between representations of Delilah and Judith. While one is a heroine and invoked to defend and uphold the virtue and power of a great family and city, the other is used to warn men of the danger of women’s allure. The world inside Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes does not quite seem to add up with the world inside the biblical text and yet the two are conflated, resulting in an image of Judith that is far removed from that of Delilah.
Both Samson and Holofernes were struck down by women, charmed by words and beauty before an ultimate betrayal. Surely this common ending for the men of each story must also draw a parallel between the women. Both Judith and Delilah are witty with their words and take it upon themselves whether directly in the case of Judith or indirectly in the case of Delilah to destroy great warriors. There are ambiguities as to whether Delilah does this willingly but the book of Judith makes it clear that the widow formulates and single-handedly carries out her own plan of revenge.
There is far less known about Delilah than Judith but the holes in Delilah’s narrative have been liberally filled by artistic representations. If one was to simply read the biblical text without knowledge of these representations, perhaps it would not be so easy to condemn Delilah and praise Judith. However, there are aspects of the characterisations of these women which make it clear how we are to judge each. Judith is pure. She refuses to remarry after her husband’s death (Judith 8:4) and although she uses her beauty to seduce Holofernes into trusting her, she does not give him her body (13:16). This is emphasised within both biblical and artistic representations. Delilah on the other hand, although the Bible does not comment on her sexuality, is unequivocally labelled as a prostitute in Rubens’ two works and the works of other artists as well as within Flavius Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews. Perhaps this specific alteration of the biblical text is designed to emphasise Delilah’s definite place on the ‘wrong’ side of womanhood due to the part she played in the destruction of one of God’s chosen. However, bringing sexuality into the narrative does more than solidify a negative image, it makes this sexuality the reason for Delilah’s position as the enemy. This is because it is a point of clear difference between her artistic representations and not only those of Judith but of other saintly women of the Bible, the Virgin Mary being the most obvious example. For the world in front of the artistic representations, this makes Delilah and Judith more than two biblical characters. They are instead portrayals of the different sides of women, and respectively connote ideas of Eve (sinful temptress) and Mary (holy virgin). This categorisation marks a clear divide that equates ‘purity’ with self- sacrifice and sexuality with greed and betrayal.
Artistic interpretations of Delilah and Judith seem to work like a form of Chinese whispers. The two biblical women are taken out of the pages of the Bible, passed through the works of artists such as Rubens and Caravaggio who have the power to alter and add, and then presented to us, the world in front of the text as the unaltered originals; in reality, however, they are markedly altered. Presenting the Delilah and Judith of artistic interpretation as the same women as the biblical text also reflects back onto readings and interpretations of the women in the Bible, suggesting that there is always a clear black and white divide between the virtuous ‘virgin’ figure and the deceitful harlot.
The bible is a vastly influential spiritual, cultural and historical text and for this reason artistic portrayals of its characters are far more than depictions of narrative. The differences between Delilah and Judith as portrayed in the paintings of Rubens and Caravaggio do not simply reflect differences between two biblical characters but shape and emphasise ideas of the how the Bible addresses women and even how women are seen in our secular world, the world in front of the text. Although this may not be the explicit purpose of the artistic representations of Judith and Delilah, the division between purity and perceived sexual immorality as a division between right and wrong has and will continue to have a lasting impact.
All biblical references from the New Revised Standard Version.
Clanton, Dan W. Daring, Disreputable and Devout : Interpreting the Hebrew Bible’s Women in the Arts and Music. New York: T & T Clark International, 2009.
Exum Cheryl J. Plotted, Shot, and Painted Cultural Representations of Biblical Women. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996.
Georgievska-Shine, Aneta “Rubens and the Tropes of Deceit in Samson and Delilah.” Word & Image 23, no. 4 (2007): 460-473. doi: 10.1080/02666286.2007.10435799
Josephus, Flavius. The Whole Works of Flavius Josephus, Translated by Sir Roger L’Estrange. The Seventh ed. Aberdeen: Printed and Sold by J. Bruce and J. Boyle, 1768.
Kahr, Madlyn “Delilah.” The Art Bulletin 54, no. 3 (1972): 282-299. Doi: 10.2307/3048997.
McHam, Sarah Blake. “Donatello’s Bronze David and Judith as Metaphors of Medici Rule in Florence.” The Art Bulletin 83, no. 1 (2001): 32.