Student Showcase #5: Delilah Royale

Yesterday, we featured a fabulous essay by Katherine Sherliker on Delilah’s implicit cultural afterlife in Criminal Minds. Today, Anuja Mitra continues this theme by considering another implicit afterlife for Delilah, this time the character of Vesper Lynd in James Bond movie, Casino Royale (2006). Anuja describes herself as a “more-or-less native Aucklander” going into her fourth year of a Law and Bachelor of Arts conjoint degree here at the University of Auckland. She took the Bible in Popular Culture course because it allowed her to look at pop culture through a different lens – and to write a fun essay! It’s certainly a wonderful essay, so hope you enjoy.

The Curse of a Complicated Woman: Delilah’s Pop Culture Afterlives

By Anuja Mitra

Vesper Lynd: I’m afraid I’m a complicated woman.

James Bond: That is something to be afraid of.

Casino Royale (2006)

Vesper purple
Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale (MGM 2006)

The name of the biblical character Delilah immediately evokes a disreputable and traitorous woman, yet her appearance in Judges 16 is shrouded in ambiguity. The films Samson and Delilah (1949; dir. Cecil B. DeMille) and Casino Royale (2006; dir. Martin Campbell) both feature a Delilah figure, addressing gaps in Judges 16 concerning Delilah’s characterisation, her relationship with Samson, and her motives for betraying him. Looking at the worlds within and behind the texts, these films afford us insight into attitudes towards women as well new perspectives on the biblical text.

Judges 16 is silent on Delilah’s core traits, such as her family, personality and national origins. She ostensibly lacks a family, though is able to own her own house (Exum 1996, p.181). Delilah is similarly unattached in Samson and Delilah, with no husband or “master”. This independence makes her a femme fatale; a fatally irresistible woman who leads men to their downfall. The film highlights her irresistibility: Where little can be determined about the manner of the biblical Delilah, the personality of DeMille’s Delilah is rooted in her sexuality. Our first shot of her languidly eating plums is a picture of dangerous decadence, and this overt sexuality is compounded by her exoticism. Judges 16 leaves Delilah’s ethnicity ambiguous, never detailing whether she is a Philistine or an Israelite. In DeMille, Delilah is a Philistine courtesan whose foreignness makes her all the more beguiling for Samson. As a femme fatale who weaponises her sexuality, Delilah represents fears surrounding women’s emancipation in 1940s America (Blyth 2017, p.138). Her foreign status also plays upon post-war ethnic anxieties (ibid., p.126). There is nothing in Judges 16 to suggest DeMille’s rendering of Delilah as a “‘scheming little dame’” (cited in ibid., p.123), but by painting her as such, the film implies that a headstrong woman is nothing but trouble.

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James Bond and Vesper Lynd (MGM)

Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale is characterised differently. While Samson meets Delilah in the Valley of Sorek (Judges 16:4), the boundary between the land of the Philistines and that of the Israelites, Bond meets Vesper on the train; a similarly liminal space where she appears cloaked in inscrutability. Vesper’s mystery and beauty characterise her as a femme fatale, yet she is not framed as negatively as DeMille’s Delilah. The film emphasises her intelligence as she wittily challenges Bond’s arrogance. Vesper is also courageous, saving Bond’s life twice and finally accepting her death. We are encouraged to admire Vesper for qualities that are condemned in Samson and Delilah, such as confidence and resourcefulness. This perhaps reflects the changed social context between the mid-twentieth and twenty-first centuries. With the increased prominence of feminism, women’s independence is now applauded more than criticised. The positive portrayal of Vesper illuminates Judges 16 by drawing attention to positive aspects of Delilah’s character, like her determination and bravery (Smith 1997, p.46). It displays how misogyny can cause us to judge her harshly instead of acknowledging that she may have personality traits worthy of praise.

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Vesper Lynd (MGM)

An second gap in the biblical text is Delilah’s feelings for Samson. We know that Samson loved Delilah (Judges 16:4), but are unsure whether Delilah loved Samson. This ambiguity is erased in Samson and Delilah. Delilah is madly in love with Samson, insisting, “I’d kill to keep you. You’re the only thing in the world I want.” Delilah’s passion drives the film, and it is suggested that she never truly stops loving Samson. She hesitates betraying him, at first refusing to discover the secret of his strength because she would hate to be “armed with a weapon” against him. Even after she captures Samson, she insists that the Philistines do not physically harm him. Overall, Samson and Delilah frames Delilah’s story as a romantic epic, portraying Samson and Delilah as doomed lovers in a sexual relationship. This heightens the sexual connotations in Judges 16 of Delilah making Samson sleep on her lap (Judges 16:19). It also interprets Delilah’s remark that Samson would tell her his secret if he really loved her (Judges 16:15) as not mere emotional manipulation. Rather, her desire to know his secret may genuinely be driven by her passion for him and desire to win his trust. This is hinted by how she does not immediately call the Philistines when he tells her truth, unlike in Judges 16. Delilah’s unwavering love for Samson in the film potentially lends her a sympathetic edge, yet it also makes her look worse in the light of her betrayal.

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Vesper Lynd and James Bond (MGM 2006)

Vesper’s feelings are also made clear in Casino Royale. She implies that she reciprocates Bond’s feelings for her, nursing him back to health after their dangerous mission and accompanying him on a romantic holiday. Yet when Bond explicitly tells her that he loves her, her reaction is unreadable. Later, however, her love is confirmed when she kisses his hand to apologise before submitting to her death. Whether Delilah loved Samson powerfully influences our assessment of her character and the depth of her betrayal. In DeMille, Delilah seems condemned because she loved Samson, suggesting that is more heinous to betray a loved one than a stranger. There is possibly a gendered element to this attitude, as a man abandoning a woman may not be considered as deplorable since men are assumed to hold the power in a heterosexual relationship. Women, meanwhile, are expected to be more submissive and accept the love of a man regardless of whether she reciprocates it. Yet thinking of Delilah as in love with Samson can also make her a tragic figure where she deceives Samson unwillingly. In Vesper’s case, she seems reluctant to admit that she loves Bond for fear of hurting both him and herself when she must betray him.

A final gap in Judges 16 is Delilah’s motive for betraying Samson. Various reasons for her betrayal have been proposed, including avarice, national loyalty and vengeance (Exum 1996, p.199). The clearest motive alluded to by Judges 16 is the eleven hundred pieces of silver Delilah is promised (Judges 16:5). In Samson and Delilah, however, this motive is eclipsed by her main goal: Revenge on Samson for leaving her. She tells the Saran that she wishes to punish Samson for the death of her family, but it is obvious that when she actually captures him it is because she believes he is abandoning her for Miriam. She confirms this when she declares, “no man leaves Delilah.” Delilah betraying Samson out of poisonous jealousy imposes a new layer of meaning on Judges 16, in which there is no other female character (and it is unclear whether Delilah loves Samson in the first place). This perpetuates ideas of women as motivated by possessiveness and competition with other women, and reinforces the femme fatale’s volatility: She may love a man one moment and leave him for dead the next.

Vesper gif

Vesper’s reasons for betraying Bond are strikingly different, and give us a glimpse into an alternative way of interpreting Delilah’s story. If Delilah were a Philistine, her tricking of Samson may be a patriotic act, causing her people to regard her as heroic (Klein 2003, p.28). Vesper’s motives can also be considered heroic, as it is revealed that she was only working for the enemy because they had threatened to kill her boyfriend if she did not cooperate. She attempts to resist her inevitable betrayal, seemingly commenting on her own plight when she tells Bond, “you’ve got a choice…just because you’ve done something doesn’t mean you have to keep doing it.” Ultimately, Vesper is portrayed as a tragic heroine. Her arc suggests a vulnerable dimension to the femme fatale and to Delilah in Judges 16. A woman living alone in her historical period, Delilah was socially and politically vulnerable (Brenner 1999, p.111) and may have been unable to refuse the Philistine lords’ request. If she used her sexuality to trap Samson, it was because this was the only power her gender afforded to her (Smith 1997, p.46). Betraying Samson would have provided her with social and economic security, helping her rise from a position of relative powerlessness (ibid., p.55). A vulnerable reading of Delilah gives us a less blameworthy portrait of her, challenging us to the see the story through her perspective rather than a patriarchal lens.

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Vesper Lynd (MGM 2006)

Despite appearing only briefly in the Bible, Delilah enjoys a rich legacy in popular culture. The frustrating ambiguities in her story have been filled by artistic works in differing ways: While Samson and Delilah paints her as a sensual and dangerous femme fatale, Casino Royale’s Delilah figure is a feisty and likeable heroine with a tragic fate. Examining the worlds within these texts, we can explore the filmmakers’ creative discretion in how they depict Delilah, while the world behind the texts shows us how these depictions were influenced by certain gender discourses. Overall, the shifting representations of Delilah reveal how she is moulded and remoulded based on the cultural understandings of different eras (Clanton 2009, p.65). This is arguably not only the reason for her power but the power of the Bible itself, as popular culture keeps its tales worthy of revisiting over and over.

Vesper poster
Vesper Lynd and James Bond (MGM 2006)

 

Bibliography

All biblical references are from the New Revised Standard Version.

Blyth, Caroline. Reimagining Delilah’s Afterlives as Femme Fatale: The Lost Seduction. London: Bloomsbury, 2017.

Brenner, Athalya. Feminist Companion to Judges. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999.

Clanton, Dan. Daring, Disreputable, and Devout: Interpreting the Bible’s Women in the Arts and Music. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2009.

Exum, Cheryl J. “Samson and Delilah in Film”. In The Bible in Motion: A Handbook of the Bible and its Reception in Film, edited by Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch, 83-100. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016.

Exum, Cheryl J. Plotted, Shot, and Painted: Cultural Representations of Biblical Women. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996.

Klein, Lillian. From Deborah to Esther: Sexual Politics in the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003.

Smith, Carol. “Samson and Delilah: A Parable of Power?” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 22, no. 76 (1997): 45-57.

Weiner, Robert, B. Lynn Whitfield and Jack Becker, eds. James Bond in World and Popular Culture: The Films are Not Enough. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011.

 

 

 

 

 

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Student showcase 4: Delilah’s Criminal Mind

It wouldn’t be a true Auckland TheoRel student showcase without at least one piece of work on Delilah, our favourite biblical femme fatale. This year, we have not one but two essays to share, and each one offers us something a little bit different than our usual focus on Delilah’s explicit afterlives in popular culture. Starting us off, Katherine Sherliker considers a more implicit portrayal of a Delilah-like character in the hit TV series Criminal Minds. Katherine hails from Northampton, UK, and has been living in Auckland since 2008. She has just finished her first year of a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in linguistics, with a minor in education. She hopes to do a Master of Speech Language Therapy Practice after completing her BA. Katherine took our Bible and Popular Culture course because she thought it looked interesting, and was particularly drawn to the promise made in the syllabus that we’d be studying Harry Styles. It appears to have lived up to her expectations, as she describes it as her favourite course so far (and yes, Harry was the subject of one of our lectures).

So, if you are as big a Delilah fan as I am, you will enjoy this essay very much indeed.

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Kat Adams in Criminal Minds (CBS)

A Game of Cat and Mouse

 Criminal Minds’ Cat Adams as an Implicit Portrayal of Delilah

Katherine Sherliker

Deceptive, vindictive, seductive and dangerous. This is how the biblical character Delilah is portrayed in popular culture, but it has no basis in the original text of Judges 16. This negative image of Delilah as a femme fatale, the fatal woman, is preserved in cultural retellings of the Samson and Delilah text, both explicitly and implicitly. The story of Cat Adams, a serial killer and hit-woman, from Jeff Davis’ crime drama television series Criminal Minds, is an implicit portrayal of Delilah from the Samson and Delilah story. Manipulation, selfishness and betrayal are common themes in both Cat’s and Delilah’s narratives, but can these characters be seen in more positive lights? This essay will explore how an implicit retelling of Judges 16 allows the Delilah character to be rethought in different ways that subvert the traditional tropes of the femme fatale.

In Criminal Minds, Cat is depicted as a manipulative femme fatale character, much like Delilah is in explicit retellings of the Samson and Delilah story. The femme fatale figure contains four common traits: she is seductive, she has power over men, she is deceptive, she is mysterious and therefore, she is dangerous (Clanton 2014, 1155). Hit-woman Cat specialises in seduction, and she acquires all information that she possibly can about the men she is hired to kill. In order for her victims to not foresee their death, Cat puts them in a compromised position by learning all there is to know about their physical, emotional and psychological state (“Entropy,” Season 11 Ep. 11, 2016). Extremely patient, she spends years studying her targets, so that her exploitation and manipulation has maximum effect, intending for them to commit suicide: “When I do it really well they pull the trigger themselves” (ibid.)

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Cat Adams and Spencer Reid (CBS)

Cat’s modus operandi is seen as outrageous and shocking, but it is also comparable to Delilah deceiving Samson, especially in explicit retellings. Despite not being as patient and insidious as Cat, in the Book of Judges (Judges 16:6-18) Delilah repeatedly asks Samson to tell her the source of his strength, eventually manipulating him by saying, “how can you say, ‘I love you,’ when your heart is not with me?” (Judges 16:15). This clever exploitation of Samson’s emotions is the statement that makes interpreters see Delilah as deceptive, as it appears that she had intent to instill guilt into him (Clanton 2009, 67-8). Smith argues that Delilah knew that she must get into Samson’s mind in order to overpower him physically (1997, 51). The characterisation of Delilah as a femme fatale stems from this perception that she knew of Samson’s lust for her, which is why she uses seduction and her sexuality to trap and weaken him (52).

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Cat and Spencer (CBS)

Much like the cultural portrayals of Delilah, Cat also uses her sexuality to get what she desires. Cat, despite being heterosexual, uses the art of seduction to deceive fellow hit-woman Lindsey Vaughn by pretending that she is in love with her – this convinces Lindsey to frame Dr. Spencer Reid, who is Cat’s main rival, in order to fulfil her partner’s wishes (“Green Light,” Season 12 Ep. 21, 2017). However, Cat also uses her high intelligence and quick wit to eliminate her enemies. This is a stark contrast to the Delilah character, who is commonly understood and portrayed to have used only her sexuality to undermine Samson. Cat is a genius at solving problems and planning, for example, she assembled a group of criminals with their sole purpose being to punish Dr. Reid, all while she was incarcerated in Mount Pleasant Women’s Correctional Facility (“Red Light,” Season 12 Ep. 22, 2017). She also terminated an undercover operation almost immediately by identifying all of the undercover agents in the restaurant, knowing that it was a trap because of her clever researching and planning beforehand (“Entropy” 2016). Cool and confident, the fatal woman says, “I didn’t walk into your trap, you walked into mine” (ibid.). The use of intelligence as the ‘dangerous’ aspect of the femme fatale is a refreshing way to rethink the character, given Delilah’s beauty and seductiveness, rather than her intellect, are consistently emphasised as her fatal qualities.

Maeve and Spencer
Maeve and Spencer …

Another prevalent depiction of the Delilah character is one that is selfish and jealous. A common theme in Delilah’s afterlives is that she is jealous of another female in Samson’s life. In the original story of Samson, there is an allusion to Delilah being the exact opposite of the perfect woman (Smith 1997, 52). Judges 13-16 reinforces the virgin/whore binary by identifying the “good” woman and the “bad” woman – the good woman being maternal, plain and chaste, and the bad woman being openly sexual and a harlot (Exum 1996, 186). In the biblical text, an example of a good woman is Samson’s mother in Judges 13, as she fulfills the two main gender roles – being a mother and a wife, while Delilah is the bad woman, as she is provocative and unattached (ibid.). In Delilah’s afterlives, there is often a woman who is a foil to her, and this also appears with Cat in Criminal Minds. Maeve Donovan was Dr. Reid’s partner, and she was plain and modest in appearance, and demure and meek in her personality – a complete contrast to Cat (“The Lesson,” Season 8 Ep. 10, 2012). Cat, being in love with Dr. Reid, was excessively jealous of Maeve, and this sparked her rampage of manipulation and deceit against him (“Red Light” 2017). This obsessive love and jealousy compels her to want the destruction of the man she desires – “if I can’t have him, no one can” – a classic femme fatale quality.

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…compared to Cat and Spencer

The betrayal of the men that she is involved with further reinforces the view that the Delilah character is selfish and jealous. It is obvious that Delilah betrays Samson’s trust by submitting him to the Philistines, which paints her as untrustworthy and sinful (Gervin 2017). The biblical text declares that Samson is “in love” with Delilah (Judges 16:4), which makes her betrayal much more malicious than if he did not care for her. Delilah’s actions also disrupt gender boundaries as she emasculates the man – a corrupt act, and a main trait of the femme fatale (ibid.). This act of deception is why Delilah has become the epitome of the femme fatale, as her unconcealed sexuality and seduction is what was dangerous and ultimately fatal to Samson (Exum 1996, 176). Again, Cat is similar to this, as she is known to betray some of her clients by killing them instead, especially men who ask her to kill their wives (“Entropy” 2016). This brings a grim meaning to femme fatale – a literal fatal woman.

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Cat (CBS)

With the femme fatale character’s betrayal and manipulation of men, a question needs to be asked – why do they do this? Both the biblical Delilah and her afterlives may have legitimate reasons for their actions, allowing them to be seen in a more positive light. For example, it is made obvious in Judges 16 that Samson has great physical strength. As a woman, Delilah is less physically powerful than Samson, especially with his extreme strength. Delilah may have been fearful of Samson, and finding the source of his strength would be the only way to overcome him (Smith 1997, 55). Cat is also physically vulnerable. As a contract killer, she has to get physically close and personal with her targets, which could end badly as many of them were powerful men (“Entropy”  2016). Also, in terms of wealth, the Delilah character may have been dependent on others for money. In Judges 16:5, the five Philistine leaders offer Delilah “eleven hundred pieces of silver” each to subdue Samson. As the biblical text does not mention any of Delilah’s relatives or any ways she was earning money, it can be interpreted that she was alone and perhaps financially unstable. The money that the Philistines offered her may have been her only way to gain economic independence (Smith 1997, 55). Again, Cat is somewhat similar to this, as being a hit-woman is her job, and if she mishandled a situation her career, and even her life, could be over.

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Cat and Spencer (CBS)

Most importantly, Delilah can be seen as socially and emotionally vulnerable – though this is rarely considered in her afterlives. Delilah may feel like an outcast, as it is often suggested that she is a foreign woman, possibly a Philistine among Hebrews (Exum 1996, 181). She also may be fearful of repercussions if she does not fulfill the Philistine lord’s wishes, as it is feasible that she has no political power to negotiate. Despite some of her unlikable femme fatale qualities, Cat can also be seen as emotionally vulnerable. Her backstory is tragic, as she was abused as a child by her father, who was jailed for killing her mother (“Entropy” 2016). She was then mistreated by her foster father (ibid.). After this, Cat spent the rest of her life trying to find her father who was eventually released from prison, all while taking her anger out on men who reminded her of him (ibid.). The emotional turmoil Cat experienced as a youth could have changed her into the manipulative and vindictive femme fatale character that she was in her adult life. This is an interesting way to look at the femme fatale character – these women are often vulnerable and act to protect themselves. Viewing the femme fatale as sensitive and possibly defenseless allows the original Delilah character to be seen the same way.

Cultural retellings of the Samson and Delilah story usually lack positive views of Delilah, instead depicting her as destructive and scandalous. It is important to realise that this has no basis in the original text, and is instead a result of these traits being preserved in cultural retellings. Criminal Minds’ Cat Adams is an implicit portrayal of Delilah, as she is remarkably comparable to Delilah’s afterlives and the overall femme fatale figure. These indirect retellings of the story and recreations of the character allow Delilah to be rethought in a new light. Portrayals of Delilah such as this one allow us to rethink why she may have betrayed Samson. Instead of automatically blaming it on her being malicious, we can speculate about her economic, social and physical vulnerability, and why this drove her to her actions. The limited description of Delilah in Judges 16 leaves a great deal to the imagination, so why not reimagine her in a positive light for a change?

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Cheers, Cat!

References

References to the Bible are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

Clanton, Dan W. “Trollops and Temptresses.” In Daring, Disreputable, and Devout: Interpreting the Bible’s Women in the Arts and Music, 65-77. New York: T&T Clark, 2009.

“Entropy.” Criminal Minds. Created by Jeff Davis. United States: CBS, January 13, 2016.

Exum, C. J., “Why, why, why Delilah?” In Plotted, Shot, and Painted: Cultural Representations of Biblical Women, 175-237. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press Ltd, 1996.

Clanton, Dan W. “Femme Fatale: III Film.” In Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception, 1155-7. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014.

Gervin, L. “Women as Deceivers in the Hebrew Bible.” Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal 13, no. 2 (2017): 1-11.

“Green Light.” Criminal Minds. Created by Jeff Davis. United States: CBS, May 3, 2017.

“Red Light.” Criminal Minds. Created by Jeff Davis. United States: CBS, May 10, 2017.

Smith, Carol. “Samson and Delilah: A Parable of Power?” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 22, no. 76 (1997): 45-57.

“The Lesson.” Criminal Minds. Created by Jeff Davis. United States: CBS, December 5, 2012.

 

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.

 

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 13 December: Delilah 2

As promised yesterday, today’s Advent offering stays with that most fascinating biblical character – Delilah from Judges 16 – turning to look at one of her most iconic afterlives in popular culture, played by Austrian actor Hedy Lamarr in Cecil B. DeMille’s classic movie Samson and Delilah (Paramount, 1949).

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Danger and desire: there is a sizzling passion between Samson and Delilah, but what is Delilah holding behind her back?

Lamarr, an actor already ‘notorious for being notorious’ (Llewellyn-Jones 2005) due to her somewhat risqué film career to date, seems to have been the perfect choice for playing the part of DeMille’s captivatingly gorgeous Delilah. Wanting to make sure she looked the part, he instructed Hollywood costume designer Edith Head to make sure Lamarr’s Delilah embodied ‘biblical glamour’ (two words you don’t usually see in the same sentence).

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Costume sketch by Edith Head for one of Lamarr’s Delilah costumes – see the finished product below.
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Another sketch by Edith Head for Samson and Delilah (1949)

And certainly, Head appears to have risen magnificently to DeMille’s challenge. Lamarr’s costumes are a triumph of exotic glamour, with their rich fabrics, jewel tones, and swirling drapes that reveal the maximum of flesh, while (barely) keeping within the strict Hollywood Production Code rules of the day. Like the plethora of femmes fatales who were appearing in the films noir of this period, Lamarr offers us a Delilah who is beautiful, beguiling, sensual, irresistible, and therefore utterly lethal. Her dangerousness lies in her seductive power, the way she captivates Samson, leaving this Hebrew strongman powerless to resist her sexual charms. And, while Lamarr alone is enough to make anyone swoon, her gorgeous costumes throughout this movie only accentuate her ravishing allure, guaranteeing that both Samson and her audience will gaze upon her with an unsettling and stomach-churning sense of danger and desire.

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Lamarr on the set of Samson and Delilah (1949) – this is her ‘haircutting’ outfit, where she first drugs Samson’s wine before cutting his hair while he sleeps (see original sketch above). Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
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Exotic and erotic biblical glamour: Lamarr in another of Head’s designs. I seriously love these shoes (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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The famous peacock dress, worn by Delilah to the temple of Dagon, where, according to DeMille, she and Samson die together. In Judges 16, Delilah’s fate is never mentioned (photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images).
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Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This final image is a favourite of mine.  Just look at Lamarr’s sumptuous surroundings, her extravagant gold dress and jewels, the flashes of red in her accessories (and lips!) that alert us to her sexual lethality. Deliciously decadent, dangerous, and desirable, she really is that quintessence of the 1940s Hollywood femme fatale.

For more details on Edith Head’s ‘fashioning’ of Delilah, see this fascinating chapter:

Llewellyn-Jones, Lloyd. ‘The fashioning of Delilah: Costume design, historicism and fantasy in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1940)’. In The Clothed Body in the Ancient World, ed. M. Harlow &. L. Llewellyn-Jones L Cleland. Oxford, 2005. p. 14-29.

 

Advent offering: 12 December

No Auckland Theology and Religion Advent calendar is complete without an image of my favourite biblical character – the irrepressible and infamous Delilah, from Judges 16. So I have a few Delilah images to share with you this weekend: today, I have one from fine art and tomorrow, we’ll look at some of Delilah’s most glamorous afterlives in pop culture.

So for today’s offering, behold this stunning painting by American artist Terry Strickland, titled Trust and Betrayal, Samson and Delilah.

Terry Strickland, Trust and Betrayal, Samson and Delilah (2007)
Terry Strickland, Trust and Betrayal, Samson and Delilah (2007)

Delilah is slouching on a velvet draped chair, Samson’s head resting on her lap. She looks dressed for a party, in a shimmery organza frock, which reminds me of a wedding dress, although she appears less the exultant bride than the sated victor of some unnamed battle between herself and the man whose head she cradles. Completely relaxed, she stares Strickland detailnonchalantly at us, daring us, perhaps, to wake the sleeping Samson, and appearing totally unrepentant for what she is about to do with those scissors in her hand. Dressed up as Samson’s lover – even his bride – she is, instead, his betrayer.

Terry Strickland1Samson, meanwhile, is the slumbering epitome of trust; with no sense of imminent danger, he sleeps deeply, rendering himself vulnerable before the woman to whom he has revealed his deepest secrets.  Yet, his naiveté comes at a cost, as this painting hints at all too clearly. Strickland has situated most of Samson’s figure in the shadows, with the result that his head appears to be unattached to a body. This gruesome trompe l’oeil reminds us of his fate and drives home the deadly effects that will be put in motion by Delilah’s actions.

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