Another glimpse of Delilah

Today’s wonderful Bible and Pop Culture essay is by Lachlan Balfour, who takes us back for another look at my favourite biblical character, Delilah. Lachlan has just completed his second year of a law and arts degree, where he is majoring in politics. Lachlan hasn’t decided yet what he’ll do once he completes his degree (he has a while to decide!) but at this point, he is thinking about a career working in politics.  Lachlan tells me that he enjoyed our Bible and Pop Culture course, as it allowed him to gain a knowledge of the bible and to understand just how prevalent it is in contemporary society. So sit back, and relish some more Delilah fabulousness.

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Hedy Lamarr as Delilah in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (Paramount, 1949)

Samson’s Judas: The Portrayal of Delilah as a Vindictive Femme Fatale

By

Lachlan Balfour

The portrayal of Delilah in cultural texts since the first mention of her in Judges 16 has tended to show her as a vindictive femme fatale, something that has little basis in the bible. Judges 16 provides limited background on Delilah, her motivation for betraying Samson or the nature of their relationship. Despite this, creators of cultural works, including Rembrandt in his 1636 work The Blinding of Samson, Rubens’ Samson and Delilah and Cecil B. DeMille’s 1949 film epic of the same name, attempt to fill these gaps to create Delilah the femme fatale. Delilah’s motivation for betraying Samson, the nature of their relationship, and whether Delilah regretted her betrayal are the biblical gaps discussed.  This essay will focus on how the world behind the text, including the creator’s experiences and the views of those around them, and the world in the text – focusing on the piece itself, are used to fill these gaps to create the  image of Delilah we have today.

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Poster for Samson and Delilah (Paramount 1949)

In Samson and Delilah, DeMille gives Delilah a number of motivations for cutting Samson’s hair, all of which aid in portraying her as a vindictive femme fatale. Judges 16 only refers to the possible motivation of Delilah receiving “eleven hundred pieces of silver” from each of the Philistine elders in return for discovering the source of Samson’s strength (JDG. 16.5). While DeMille does incorporate this detail into his telling of the story, he does not make it the sole reason for Delilah’s betrayal. DeMille instead makes her primary motivation that of revenge for Samson’s rejection of her over her sister and an all-consuming jealousy that means if she can’t have Samson, no one can – both very femme fatale like qualities. The world in the text of the film shows Samson rejecting the offer of marriage to Delilah after her sister betrays him by marrying someone else, stating he would “not want a thistle from a rose” (Zwick 2014, 219). After becoming courtesan to King of the philistines, she offers her services in trapping Samson as revenge for his rejection. Once Delilah has cut off his hair she offers another motive for her betrayal – jealousy. Referring to the virtuous Mirjam who loves Samson and convinces him to leave Delilah to save his parents, Delilah remarks:  “I could have loved you with a fire to make all others seem like ice…but one call from the milk-faced Danite and you run whining at her heels.” This is very much portraying Delilah as the femme fatale, a seductress who causes the downfall of a helpless man her for her own gratification. Her near hatred for Samson after his rejection also adds to this image, which is vastly different to the monetary reward which seems to motivate Delilah in the bible.

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Hedy Lamarr and Victor Mature, Samson and Delilah (Paramount 1949)

The society surrounding DeMille influenced him in making his Delilah a “scheming little dame,” taking from popular perceptions of Delilah in the 1940s and views on women more generally (Kozlovic 2010, 8). Delilah’s portrayal as a femme fatale fits very much within view of Delilah in the 1940s, that she was a temptress and therefore her whole character was bad. This is in line with the conservative view that promiscuous women were dangerous and immoral that existed during the period – though promiscuous men were not subjected to the same harsh judgement.  Samson is portrayed as an Israelite hero for murdering Philistines in revenge for his broken engagement to Delilah’s sister, but Delilah is seen as a vindictive temptress for doing what was in the best interests of her people. By portraying Delilah as, in DeMille’s words, “quite the bitch” but Samson as above reproach is a reflection of the world behind the text of 1940s society in America where men were seen as the superior sex (ibid., 12). Further, DeMille is enforcing the stereotype of  Delilah as a dangerous woman, determined to bring down Samson for initially rejecting her love. More recent interpretations consider that perhaps Delilah was only betraying Samson for her own survival, knowing that it was dangerous to disobey the Philistine elders (ibid., 10). No consideration is given to her situation, a single woman in a world very much dominated by men, and that maybe her motivations lay only in survival (Zwick 2014, 219).

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Delilah makes the fatal cut (Paramount 1949)

Rembrandt portrays Delilah as unremorseful for her betrayal of Samson, instead relishing in his pain to add to her image as an evil, vindictive woman. Judges 16 offers no insight into how Delilah felt about her actions, so he has filled this gap in a way that enforces the stereotype of her as an evil femme fatale. The world in the text of The Blinding of Samson shows Delilah as being both repulsed by the gouging of Samson’s eyes but also has a look of fascination and almost satisfaction as she looks on at the struggling Samson (Georgievska-Shine 2007, 249). Further, she is seen to be mocking Samson by clutching his hair in her hand and “flaunting it” in front of him (ibid). He is enforcing the stereotype of Delilah as a femme fatale who revels in the destruction she has caused by painting her as a “projection of the feeling of attraction mingled with repulsion elicited by woman and the danger she denotes” (ibid.). Rembrandt has completely imagined her response cutting Samson’s hair as there is no mention of her after the gouging in Judges 16, and instead of giving her qualities of shame and remorse he has used it to give her the qualities of a femme fatale.

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Rembrandt, The Blinding of Samson (1636)

            Looking behind the text, Rembrandt’s own fear of losing his vision, something that for a painter would be seen as ‘the ultimate deprivation’, combined with societal views impacts his portrayal of Delilah (ibid.). It is thought that the models for Samson and Delilah is the artist himself and his wife Saskia, with Rembrandt having only painted Samson during their marriage (ibid., 252). His own feelings about relationships between man and woman and the dangers that they contained were expressed through The Blinding of Samson. Rembrandt saw from his marriage that women could be unremorseful femme fatales, and used his deepest fear of going blind as a way to show the betrayal which can occur in relationships (ibid.). Further influencing his depiction of Delilah were those around him. There was a strong theme in Dutch art and literature at the time warning of the dangers of relations between man and woman (ibid.). This would have caused him to take a more moralistic approach to Delilah, portraying her as evil personified for betraying Samson and therefore unremorseful for her actions.

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Rubens, Samson and Delilah (1609-10)

Rubens’ Samson and Delilah portrays the relationship between the pair as sex worker and customer to enforce the image of Delilah as a femme fatale. Judges 16 does not give a clear picture of the relationship between Samson and Delilah. Although it assumed she is a concubine, Samson acts differently towards her than the woman he lay with earlier in the text (Jdg. 16.1-3), saying that he is in love with her rather than there just being a sexual attraction (Sasson 1998, 334). In Rubens’ painting, we see from the world in the text that he includes many of the traits of a brothel with an old woman as a ‘procuress’ and the inclusion of towels and jars typical of brothel scenes (Georgievska-Shine 2007, 461). Further hints at this being a brothel scene are that Delilah’s breasts are exposed and she is waring in a red dress, the huge Samson resting on her lap hinting that they have just finished making love (Exum 1996, 192). This sexualisation of Delilah combined with the perception of sex workers as people with ‘loose morals’ contributes to her portrayal as a seductress and dangerous woman – despite this not being the case in Judges 16. That Rubens chooses to portray her as a concubine is very much a reflection of his world and the beliefs at the time. Other artists during the 17th century also adhered to Josephus’ description of Delilah as a “harlot among the philistines” by painting her with an expression of indifference toward Samson, never having loved him (Georgievska-Shine 2007, 462). It is only natural that Rubens would follow this theme in his portrayal, interpreting Judges 16 in such a way that Delilah is made into an immoral seductress.

The portrayal of Delilah in cultural texts differs greatly from her biblical portrayal in Judges 16. Looking at the texts and their creators’ influences for Delilah’s portrayal show a vindictive femme fatale where only a vague description of Delilah exists in the bible. Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah fills the biblical gap of the motivation for Delilah’s betrayal as revenge and jealousy, attributes that feed into the image of her as a femme fatale. DeMille’s world helped to shape this portrayal by its views around the interpretation of Delilah and women more generally. Rembrandt’s The Blinding of Samson also exhibits Delilah as an unremorseful, dangerous woman, with the moralistic Dutch contemporaries and his own personal views on relationships shaping this portrayal. Finally, Rubens’ Samson and Delilah fills the final gap in Judges 16, portraying the relationship between Samson and Delilah as a courtesan and customer. The prevailing view at the time of Delilah as a sex worker influencing his work and helping to add to Delilah’s image as an immoral femme fatale.

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Bibliography

All biblical text references are from the New Revised Standard Version.

Exum, J. Cheryl.  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 and Image 23, no. 4 (2007): 460-473. doi:10.1080/02666286.2007.10435799.

Kahr, Madlyn. “Rembrandt and Delilah”. The Art Bulletin 55, no. 2 (1973): 240-259. doi:10.1080/00043079.1973.10789742.

Kozlovic K., Anton. “The Construction of Samson’s Three Lovers in Cecil B DeMilles Technicolor Testament, Samson and Delilah (1949).” Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal 1, no. 7 (2010): 1-31.

Sasson M. Jack “Who Cut Samson’s Hair? (And Other Trifling Issues Raised by Judges 16).” Prooftexts 8, no. 3 (1988): 333-339.

Zwick, Reinhold. “Obsessive Love: Samson and Delilah Go To the Movies”. In Samson: Hero or Fool? The Many Faces of Samson, edited by Erik Eynikel and Tobias Nicklas, 211-235. Leiden: Brill, 2014.

 

Salome – victim, seductress, or both?

Today’s advent student offering is a marvellous essay written by THEOREL 101 student Wen-Juenn Lee. WenJuenn is a third year student majoring in English Literature and Media Studies. She tells me that she likes to read, write and discuss everything related to Harry Styles being a contemporary messiah. But, for her Bible and Pop Culture essay, she tore herself away from Harry and wrote this excellent piece on that most enigmatic biblical figure – Salome. Read on, and enjoy.

The Dance of Seduction: the Power of Popular Culture on Shaping the Portrayal of Mark’s Dancing Daughter in the Bible

by

Wen-Juenn Lee

Although religion and popular culture are often perceived as two distinct categories, the relationship between the Bible and popular culture has often been dynamic. This is seen in the biblical portrayal of Herodias’ dancing daughter in Mark, and her subsequent afterlives in film, literature and art. As society alters and gives meaning to biblical characters in a way they can understand, we see the dialectic process in which popular culture, societal attitudes and religion shape one another in an ongoing evolution.

In Mark 6:21-29, Herodias’ daughter danced before King Herod and his guests, which delighted the King. As a reward, he offered her “anything you like and I will give it to you.” Herodias, furious that John the Baptist had condemned Herod’s marriage to Herodias, told her daughter to ask for John’s head. So the daughter requested, “I want you to give me John the Baptist’s head, immediately, on a dish.” In front of his guests and in swearing an oath to the girl, Herod was reluctant to break his promise to her. So Herod sent his guard to execute John, and to bring his head on a dish.

As Mark simply referred to the dancing daughter as “daughter of Herodias,” inevitable gaps surrounding the daughter’s identity and motivations emerge. In Flavius Josephus’ historical account The Antiquities of the Jews, a stepdaughter of Herod’s is referred to as Salome. (Book XVIII, Chapter 5, 4) In this way, people came to identify Salome as the same person as the dancing daughter, explaining why the daughter is only ever referred to as Herodias’ daughter and not Herod’s. Thus, the dynamic between “Herodias’ daughter” and Herod becomes a crucial factor in the way artists and writers understood Salome’s dance. According to Josephus, Salome was born around 14 A.D and married twice. Her name, deriving from the Hebrew word Shalom, means peace. Her status as a daughter of a queen, and eventually becoming queen herself, gives her a position of relative power, not to mention indicating her wealth.

Nevertheless, apart from these few inferences we can make, information about Salome, and the dance she became associated with, are scarce and few. Referred to as “the girl”, Salome’s age when she performed the dance could range from a pre-pubescent to a young adult. Her personality, which may have contributed to her motivations to dance, remain unstated. Thus, society is fascinated with a character and a dance about which there is has virtually no historical information. Furthermore, the question of Salome’s motivations for performing her dance, and in obeying her mother to ask for John the Baptist’s head, remains a mystery. In both Mark and Matthew, Herodias tells Salome to ask for John the Baptist’s head, but Salome is the one who makes the specific request “I want you to give me John the Baptist’s head, immediately, on a dish.” In asking for John the Baptist’s head, specifically “on a dish”, was Salome merely obeying her mother, or did she have personal investments in asking for his head?

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Gustave Moreau, L’Apparition (c.1876)

A hugely significant force that influenced society’s perception of Salome was Gustave Moreau’s L’Apparition, where Salome is interrupted by an apparition of John the Baptist’s head in the climax of her dance. Although the Bible does not describe Salome’s dance, Moreau interprets it in an extremely sexualised manner. Using Jospheus’ report, Moreau understood Salome as a step-daughter dancing sexually in front of her king. A languid leg peeks out from behind the sheer fabric of her dress, and an outstretched arm directs us to the decapitated head of John. Her body, twisted at the waist, directs the male gaze to her fully frontal and almost nude torso. Crowned with ostentatious jewels and Byzantine-like patterns on her skirt, Salome reinforces Western attitudes on the eroticised and oriental ‘Other’ (Said). The power of the gaze is extremely important in L’Apparition.

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Moreau’s L’Apparition, detail

Expressionless, Salome’s eyes directly meet John’s bloody head, floating in mid-air. His mouth is open in horror, while his eyes beseech and plead for Salome’s mercy. In the background, Herod, Herodias and the executioner gaze oblivious to the head of John the Baptist, while a performer looks off in the distance. While everyone averts their eyes, thereby averting their responsibility in the beheading, Salome’s expressionlessly gazes up to meet her victim’s, confirming her guilt. In depicting Salome as defiantly staring at the man she is about to behead, Moreau puts her at the forefront of the beheading, cutting out Herodias and Herod’s responsibility in John’s beheading. In this way, the nature of Salome’s dance changes. Salome is not a pawn who obliviously follows her mother’s orders, but a femme fatale who uses her sexuality to intentionally charm Herod, and simultaneously bring the downfall of a holy man. Like Eve tempting man to sin, Salome dances to ‘charm’ the King, “indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning,” to the consequences of her actions (Huysmans, 24).

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Barry Moser, Salome kissing the head of Iokanaan (2011)

In this way, the gaps of Salome’s dance and character in the Bible are filled in inadvertently by 19thcentury attitudes towards female sexuality. A dancing female who then follows her mother’s request for the beheading of a man can only be understood in one way; sexualised, immodest and manipulative. Moreau interprets Salome as solely guided by her sheer, destructive lust, an ‘enchantress’ intentionally wreaking havoc through dance. Similarly, Oscar Wilde expanded on Salome as evil seductress, seen in his L’Apparition-inspired play Salomé. Salomé, in love and spurned by John the Baptist, kisses John’s mutilated head after the climax of her vengeful dance. In this way, Moreau twists the biblical Salome to become the ultimate metaphor of destructive female sexuality, a metaphor that artists used to perpetuate patriarchal attitudes towards women. Merely referred to as “daughter of Herodias”, she is twisted into a sexualised step-daughter whose “dance”, barely described in the Bible, is interpreted as sexually manipulative. This is what shapes Salome’s appearance and personality, presented as a dark haired “exotic” temptress that is equally seductive as she is destructive.

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Salome in True Blood (HBO)

More recently, Salome emerges in HBO’s Television Series True Blood, as an elite and powerful vampire and leader of the antagonist group “The Authority.” Speaking to, and engaging in, conversation with her portrayal in the Bible and in art, Salome says, “They made me a convenient villain, a symbol of dangerous female sexuality. But I was just a girl with a severely f**ked up family.” In this way, Salome presents herself as a victim, one who was “just a girl” as opposed to the sexually developed femme fatale Moreau portrays her as. Instead, “they wrapped me up and delivered me to my step-father’s bed,” which was a “dance, of sorts.”

Thus,  Salome is portrayed as a pawn in which her mother “trades” her body in exchange for John the Baptist’s head. The syntax of “wrapped me” and “delivered me” stresses Salome’s passiveness in the face of her mother’s schemes. Helpless to the politics and “f**ked up family” she is a part of, Salome has no personal motivations in “dancing” in front of King Herod, or in asking for John the Baptist’s head. Instead, Salome is coerced by a heartless mother, and taken advantage of by her lustful step-father; the victim of the “dance” as opposed to its perpetrator.  Thus, Herod and Herodias become the vilified agents that drive Salome’s dance and John the Baptist’s beheading. Although Salome’s dance is interpreted with an underlying sexual nature like Moreau’s L’Apparition, True Blood uses the “metaphorical” dance of coercive sexual intercourse to highlight Salome’s vulnerability as a victim of the sexual act, cementing her empathy with the audience. Bill’s horror, depicted in a close up shot of his face, and Salome’s own suppressed emotions reinforce the empathy we are meant to feel for her.

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Salome and Bill, in True Blood (HBO)

But as quickly as True Blood tries to deconstruct Salome as dancing femme fatale, it perpetuates it. Salome uses her sexuality as a tool for power, in gauging the trustworthiness of Bill and Eric, and in coercing them to join “The Authority.” Her attempts and success, in seducing both Bill and Eric, are depicted as calculative and insidious, rather than acting out of genuine affection. Meanwhile, Bill and Eric, unaware that the other has been “wooed” by Salome, are depicted as helpless victims in the face of Salome’s aggressive sexuality: “She gets what she wants.” The gratuitous panning shot over Salome’s nude body as she slowly disrobes in front of Eric parallels Moreau’s male gaze, directing our attention to Salome’s breasts and hips. Staring at Eric as she undresses, Salome’s defiant gaze also parallels Moreau’s Salome, depicting her sexual agency as diabolical through the power of her gaze. Clothed in black lace and pink silk, Salome’s dark hair, red lipstick and heavily accented speech reinforces her depiction as a “foreign” femme fatale, who uses her sexuality to bring about the downfall of men. As Bill and Salome become lovers, Salome is depicted as bringing about Bill’s moral downfall, coercing him to do increasingly immoral acts. Urging Bill to feed on a pregnant women, and causing him to betray his best friend, Salome “taints” Bill’s moral compass, threatening his notions of good and evil. In this way, Salome embodies the stereotype she claims not be, seducing men for her own evil purposes.

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Sexualised Salome in HBO’s True Blood

On the one hand, then, True Blood seeks to dismantle the patriarchal interpretation of Salome as destructive femme fatale, by offering an alternative interpretation of Salome as victim, rather than perpetrator of a dance that caused John the Baptist’s beheading. Echoing mainstream feminist thought, Salome draws attention to the misogynistic portrayals of women in art: “I became a convenient symbol of dangerous female sexuality.” But the on the other hand, Salome as victim also has the danger of perpetuating gendered stereotypes. She must either be a damsel in distress or a manipulative whore, there is no in between. True Blood, reflecting wider Hollywood discourses, still relies on simplified and dichotomous understandings of female sexuality to interpret and depict Salome’s dance; as a virtue, with Salome as victim, or as a sin, with Salome as sexual agent. Either way, Salome’s physicality, as an object to be dressed in revealing clothes, and to be gazed at with long panning shots, perpetuates society’s hyper-sexualised treatment of female bodies; Salome, as a biblical dancing woman, is part of that. Perhaps “a progressive straight feminist reading…is actually impossible in light of the heavy misogynist cultural burden the Salome figure has carried for almost two thousand years” (Dierkes-Thrun, 201). Thus, True Blood’s Salome reflects conflicting attitudes towards female sexuality, shaped by a society whose own negotiations with gender and sexuality attempt to be progressive, but are equally influenced by lingering, traditional ideologies.

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True Blood‘s Salome – sexy and terrifying

From the gaps that emerge in Salome’s depiction in the Bible, her motivations to dance, and her responsibility in John the Baptist’s beheading, popular culture understands and depicts Salome’s motivations and character as a hyper-sexualised femme fatale, reflecting the varying and sometimes conflicting attitudes towards female sexuality. As L’Apparition and True Blood shows us, popular culture has the ability to adapt and shape Salome, through contemporary cultural attitudes that transgress the ambiguous and sometimes static depiction of a character in the Bible.

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References

Primary Sources

All biblical quotes are taken from the New Jerusalem Bible.

Moreau, Gustave. L’Apparition. 1876, oil on canvas, the Louvre, Paris.

“Whatever I Am, You Made Me.” True Blood: The Complete Fifth Season, written by Raelle Tucker, directed by David Petrarca, HBO, 2012.

“Somebody That I Used To Know.” True Blood: The Complete Fifth Season, written by Mark Hudis, directed by Stephen Moyer, HBO, 2012.

“Everybody Wants To Rule The World.” True Blood: The Complete Fifth Season, written by Raelle Tucker, directed by Dan Attias, HBO, 2012.

Secondary Sources

Cooke, Peter. “‘It isn’t a Dance’: Gustave Moreau’s Salome and The Apparition.Dance Research, Vol. 29 Issue 2, 2012. pp. 214-232

Clanton, Dan. “Trollops to Temptresses.” Daring, Disreputable and Devout : Interpreting the Hebrew Bible’s Women in the Arts and Music. T & T Clark International, 2009.  Print.

Dierkes-Thrun, Petra. Salome’s Modernity: Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetics of Transgression. University of Michigan Press, 2011. Print.

Girard, Rene. “Scandal and the Dance: Salome in the Gospel of Mark”. New Literary History. Vol. 15, Issue 2, 1984. pp. 311-324

Huysman, Joris Karl. À Rebours. London, UK; Penguin Books, 2003. Print.

Josephus, Flavius. The Antiquities of the Jewish. Accessed on http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-18.html

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York, US; Pantheon Books. 1

Delilah and Judith

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

by 

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.

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Rubens, Samson and Delilah, 1609-10 (oil on wood), National Gallery, London

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.

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Rubens, Gefangennahme Simpsons, 1618-20 (oil on wood), Alte Pinakothek, Munich

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.

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Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1598-9 (oil on canvas), Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica

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.

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Donatello, Judith and Holofernes, 1455-60 (bronze), Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

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.

Bibliography

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.

 

 

Advent offering 24 December

For our final advent offering of 2015, I thought I’d share some images of a gospel tradition that follows shortly after the story of the nativity. In Matthew 2.13-23, after the magi have paid their visit, God visits Joseph in a dream and tells him to take his family and flee to Egypt, as Herod intends to search for the child and kill him. This tradition has become very popular in art, with paintings from across the centuries showing these dramatic events as they unfold.

Often, artists have captured the family making this long and difficult journey, travelling through hostile territory, looking weary and unsure.

tanner flight into etypt
Henry Ossawa Tanner, Flight into Egypt (1923)
Hans Sandreuter Flight to Egypt 1885
Hans Sandreuter, Flight into Egypt (1885)
Carl Spitzweg, The Flight to Egypt (c.1879)
Carl Spitzweg, Flight into Egypt (c.1879)

Other artists have added to the gospel traditions, showing the family taking a rest on the journey, perhaps to emphasise how long and tiring their travels were.

Luc-Olivier Merson Rest on the Flight into Egypt 1876
Luc-Olivier Merson, Rest on the Flight to Egypt (1876)

Mary is snoozing with Jesus in the embrace of a Sphinx!

Rembrandt 1647
Rembrandt, Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1647)
Adam_Elsheimer_-_Die_Flucht_nach_Ägypten_(Schloss_Weißenstein)
Adam Elsheimer, Rest on the Flight into Egypt (17th Century)

Less often, we see the journey as it reaches its end, and the holy family arrive at their destination.

Edwin_Longsden_Long_-_Anno_Domini 1883
Edwin Long, Anno Domini (Flight to Egypt), 1883

One of my favourite images of this gospel tradition, however, has to be this modern take by Russian artist Ivan Korshunov.

Ivan Korshunov Flight to Egypt
Ivan Korshunov, Flight to Egypt (n.d.)

I love this visual interpretation of the story – Mary and Joseph are depicted as strong, confident characters, content in the knowledge that they are going to outrun any dangers that are snapping at their heels. On their motorcycle, they have speed and power. Mary smiles contentedly, her limbs wrapped around Joseph in a gesture of both comfort and desire. Even the infant Jesus seems blissfully unaware of his surroundings, snugly sheltering on his mother’s back. This is a family of refugees that exudes contentment and care, looking ahead to the safety of the life that awaits them in a new land, far away from Herod’s grasp.

Well, that’s it for 2015. From all of us at the Auckland Theology and Religion blog, health and happiness to you and yours over this festive period and we look forward to sharing more with you on the blog in 2016.

Advent offering 23 December

With only two sleeps to go, today’s penultimate Advent offering brings us another beautiful image of the nativity, capturing the moment when the shepherds come to pay homage to the infant Jesus. The artist, N.C. Wyeth, uses light and darkness to great effect here, bringing a sense of wonder to the scene. As the shepherds crowd into the dark space of the byre, the only light source seems to be the infant Jesus himself, whose tiny sleeping body is emanating a warm glow that brightens his mother’s face and radiates towards those who draw near to him.

NC Wyeth Nativity 1912
N.C. Wyeth, Nativity (1912)

Back tomorrow for our final Advent offering – see you then.

Advent offering 22 December

With only three sleeps to go ’til Christmas, we move from yesterday’s annunciation to the shepherds to another iconic image from the nativity – the adoration of the magi, who follow a star from the East until it alights on the place that they will find Jesus. Now, according to Matthew 2.1-12, it’s likely these magi visited the newborn Jesus a little while after his dramatic birth in the manger, yet this is usually the location in which artists like to portray them. Another artistic tradition is that, typically, three magi are depicted; the gospels do not say how many of these ‘wise men’ there were, only that they brought three expensive gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh. For all we know, there could have been many more. Which is why I find today’s Advent offering so interesting, as it chooses to eschew artistic traditions and offer us a glimpse of the other possibilities for this rather splendid visitation.

A_Adoração_dos_Magos_(1828)_-_Domingos_Sequeira
Domingos Sequeira, Adoration of the Magi (1828)

In Domingos Sequeira’s beautiful work, Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus are standing out in what appears to be a public thoroughfare, rather than in the manger where Mary gave birth. Above them shines that star with a near-blinding brightness; and it appears to have guided a whole host of magi to see this special baby. If you look closely at this image (and you can enlarge it here), you quickly lose count of how many magi-like figures are jostling to meet the holy family, carrying their gifts and paying obeisance. There are also many others present too, including women and children, who have perhaps come out to see these rather exotic visitors. And, in the midst of all the melee, the infant Jesus is ignoring everything that’s going on and staring rather sweetly at the shiny star that continues to hover over his head.

Back tomorrow for our penultimate Advent image for 2015.

Advent offering 21 December

Four sleeps to go ’til Christmas, so only four more Advent offerings left. Today’s artwork follows on with our Nativity story, focusing on the annunciation of the shepherds, as narrated in the gospel of Luke 2.8-14. I’ve chosen two very different images for you that relate this tradition. First, a beautiful painting by  German artist Heinrich Vogeler, which captures the moment when the angel first appears to the shepherds.

Heinrich_Vogeler_Verkündigung_an_die_Hirten_1902
Heinrich Vogeler, Verkundigun an die Hirten (1902)

The colour of the angel’s garment and wings is divine (a lovely change from the usual white) and goes rather nicely with her copper hair. The shepherds (a taciturn looking bunch) don’t seem to know what to make of her, while the cow in the centre of the image appears rather unimpressed. Perhaps once they all turn round and see that shooting star heading towards the byre in Bethlehem, they’ll get a little more excited about the events unfolding.

The second image I have for you is very different, capturing that moment in Luke 2.13-14 when the angelic messenger is joined by a ‘host’ of fellow divine bodies, who then proceed to burst into song. In this beautiful painting by Abraham Hondius, a riot of cherubim tumble from the heavens like confetti, while the central angelic figure lifts her arm as though to conduct them in their singing. The shepherds in this image do look suitably amazed, although note that, once again, the cow looks decidedly blasé.

476px-The_Annunciation_to_the_Shepherds_1663_Abraham_Hondius
Abraham Hondius, Annunciation to the shepherds (1663)

Luke 2.8-14

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’

Back tomorrow with some magi and mangers. See you then.

Advent offering 20 December

As we are just five sleeps from Christmas Day, the Auckland TheoRel Advent calendar will follow the tradition of previous years and focus for this last week on artistic depictions of the nativity story. Starting us off, a beautiful image of the central event in the nativity – the birth of Jesus. In the gospels, this event is mentioned almost in passing (Matt 1.25; Luke 2.7). Mary gives birth to Jesus in the byre they are sheltering in, with only Joseph present to serve as attending midwife. It’s a little while before visitors arrive (more of which tomorrow), so the couple have a moment to sit and reflect on how this event will shape their future. And while this hiatus in the action is not given explicit mention in the gospels, it has been captured beautifully by the artist I spoke about in yesterday’s Advent offering, Henry Ossawa Tanner.

Henry_Ossawa_Tanner_-_The_Holy_Family c1910
Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Holy Family (1910)

In this image, Mary and Joseph look less like the jubilant parents of a newborn than two people caught up in a journey that was not of their own planning. Mary sits bathed in an ethereal light, not touching or looking at the infant by her side; instead, she stares into the fireplace, lost in thought. Joseph, meanwhile, stands a little bit away, his eyes closed, with an expression of uncertainty and even sadness on his face. Distancing himself from his family, he appears at a loose end, not entirely sure if he belongs.  He knows that the baby is not his – he knows that his wife-to-be has undergone an experience in which he can never fully share. Both he and Mary seem to apprehend that something monumental has occurred here – their lives have undergone a seismic shift from which they will never fully recover. And so, before the brouhaha begins – before the visitors start pouring in and the drama continues to unfold, they make the most of this quiet moment together, with its strange mix of intimacy and withdrawal, lost in their own, and each other’s, thoughts. Meanwhile, the infant Jesus, lying between them and glowing in the gloom, appears, at least momentarily, to have been forgotten.

Tanner also painted a picture of Mary herself with her newborn son, which again shows this mother deep in thought, and appearing to ignore the child that lies to her right. These images remind us that, while Jesus is the central character in the nativity story, there are two other crucial players within this narrative whom, in the excitement of the birth event, we all too often overlook.

Henry-Ossawa-Tanner Mary
Henry Ossawa Tanner, Mary (c.1900)

 

Advent offering 19 December

Today’s Advent offering comes from another of my favourite artists, Henry Ossawa Tanner. One of the things I love about his art is his incredible use of colour to portray the mood and atmosphere of a scene. Just look at the painting below, which depicts the tradition of Jesus walking on water (Matthew 14.22-33).

Henry_Ossawa_Tanner,_The_Disciples_See_Christ_Walking_on_the_Water,_c._1907
Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Disciples see Christ Walking on the Water (c.1907)

The figure of Jesus stands in the top left corner of the painting – Tanner has portrayed him with little detail, so that he looks rather like an amorphous blob, similar in colour to the surrounding sea on which he stands. The disciples stand uncertainly on the boat, looking towards Jesus – some seem to be cowering at the back of the boat, as far away as they can from this supernatural event, while one (perhaps Peter?) stands up as though to get a better view.

Compared to the biblical tradition, where a storm is raging, the water is as calm as glass here. Tanner has infused this image with a glorious turquoise wash that brings an air of complete calm to the scene – an attestation by the artist, perhaps, that Jesus can indeed calm any of life’s storms.

Contrast this, however, with the image below, which has appeared in our Advent calendar back in 2013. In The Annunciation, Tanner’s colour palette is a flush of hot oranges and reds – we can feel the heat emanating from the (rather vulval-looking) angelic presence and sense the immenseness of the event for a very young and apprehensive Mary, who has been cornered by this divine messenger.

Tanner The Annunciation 1898
Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Annunciation (1898)

Tanner shows us here how colour can affect our reading of a visual image – from cool waters to fiery angels, these paintings are designed to elicit in the beholder an emotional response, which reflects the interpretive intentions of the artist. The aqua tones in his depiction of Jesus calming the storm also soothes the viewer with promises of Christ’s power over chaos, while Mary’s unsettling encounter with the angel likewise unsettles us, making this annunciation event all the more awesome.

 

 

Advent offering 18 December

Today’s Advent offering will be a short one, as I’m heading off to do some Christmas shopping. As promised yesterday, I’m going to treat you to another portrait by that most wonderful artist Rembrandt van Rijn. I’ve chosen one of his most famous portrayals of biblical characters, Bathsheba at her bath (1654).

Bathsheba
Rembrand van Rijn, Bathsheba at her bath (1654)

Unlike the biblical narrative in 2 Samuel 11, Bathsheba appears to be bathing indoors, rather than on the roof of her house. There is therefore no figure of David in the background, watching with a lustful gaze. Instead, Bathsheba clutches a letter, presumably from the King, inviting her to visit him at the palace (the painting is known by the alternative title of Bathsheba with King David’s Letter). As she lets her handmaid assist her with her preparatory ablutions, her face looks sad and troubled, foreseeing perhaps the terrible events that will unfold in the near future – David’s (unwanted?) sexual attentions, her unplanned pregnancy, the death of her husband Uriah, and the loss of her and David’s infant son. And so, without David there, we are left, as viewers, to take his place as voyeur, gazing upon her vulnerable body and desiring it, regardless of the consequences.

Back tomorrow for another Advent offering!