BY ABIGAIL RATCLIFF
You can see the rich, red and purple fabrics against the white fleshy body of Delilah across the room, her lover sprawled, vulnerable and blissful across her lap. This was the first Ruben’s painting that I fell in love with.
The story begins with God’s intent to punish the Israelites. God sent down Samson so that he could fight for the Israelites against the Phillistines and eventually free the Israelites from their reign. Delilah was employed by the Phillistines to find out Samson’s weakness so that his enemies could torture and kill him, and therefore take complete control over Israel.
Despite the great connivance of Delilah in this story, one cannot help but feel the sensuality emanating from the femme fatale. She is not merely a conspirator, but a sexually charged tool for Samson’s psychological constraint. Delilah discovered that his strength came from his hair which had never been cut. Some might argue that Samson’s real weakness is not his hair, but rather the romantic power that Delilah has over him, enticing him to succumb to her will. Her bared breasts are almost an emphasis of this, as they express how easily a man could subdue to the power of a nude woman. Sex is power in this painting, and Rubens uses rich colours of red, purple and gold in the satin material shrouding the scene to underline this inescapable labyrinth of desire. However, her feelings cannot deceive the viewer as she gazes down and rests a caring hand on his sprawled, muscular and deeply, shadowed body. She doesn’t look at him with lust though, rather with pity. However, unlike many other depictions she appears to give him a large amount of attentiveness.
Behind the two characters, a statue of Venus, the goddess of love, and her son cupid stands in shadow rather than light. This is a sign of deceit on Delilah’s part and a downfall of trust on Samson’s. She lays beneath him, almost completely white. A false virtue is laid upon her as she allows the Philistines to gaze on as Samson’s hair is cut. Compositionally she shares a side profile with the old haggard woman behind. Perhaps this is another depiction of her connivance- the old woman becoming a foreshadowing of Delilah’s future, when beauty is no longer her virtue.
The two bodies are opposites in every way, the rich delicacy of Delilah compared to Samson’s tanned, weather worn and muscular body asks the viewer to regard whether virtue or morality can be read through the features of a person, as depicting their inner self. From Ruben’s piece specifically, we are forced to question our own virtue, our own agendas in life and how we sacrifice our relationships in order to get ahead in the world. When visiting the picture at the National Gallery, one cannot help but be overwhelmed by both its beauty and by its underlying message.