Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Samson and Delilah

Lucas Cranach the Elder (German, Kronach 1472–1553 Weimar)
ca. 1528–30
Oil on beech
22 1/2 x 14 7/8 in. (57.2 x 37.8cm)
Credit Line:
Bequest of Joan Whitney Payson, 1975
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 643
In this Old Testament scene, the Israelite judge Samson sleeps in the lap of his Philistine lover Delilah, who shears a lock of hair from his head to drain his superhuman strength. A group of soldiers emerges from the forest, seeking revenge against the disempowered hero, who had murdered a thousand Philistines with the ass’s jawbone that lies at his feet.

The panel’s small size suggests that it was displayed in a private context. In the courtly setting of Cranach's time, the biblical story had an allegorical meaning, warning men of the pitfalls of love and the wiles of women.
In this Old Testament scene, the Israelite judge Samson sleeps in the lap of his Philistine lover Delilah, who shears a lock of hair from his head to drain his superhuman strength (Judges 16:19). A group of Philistines emerges from the forest, seeking revenge against Samson, who murdered a thousand of their kind with the ass's jawbone that lies at his feet. The Philistines in turn paid Delilah to discover the secret source of the Israelite's power (his uncut hair). Having failed to keep his secret, Samson was seized, blinded, and imprisoned by the Philistines, upon whom he later exacted revenge by pulling down the house of his captors in Gaza, crushing himself in the process. In The Met's painting, the sawn tree stump in the right foreground contrasts with the vital, fruit-bearing apple tree immediately behind it, in what may be a visual pun on the cutting of Samson's hair. That Delilah sits upon the stump underscores her subjugation of the hero. As Koepplin (1974) noted, the apple tree brings to mind the Tree of Knowledge, and thereby alludes to Eve's temptation of Adam to eat the forbidden fruit as an analogue to Delilah's beguilement of Samson.

This story is one of the biblical and classical subjects that were seen to exemplify the power or wiles of women (Weibermacht, or Weiberlisten) and as such were popular in Medieval and Renaissance art and literature. The theme presented an admonitory and often humorous inversion of the male-dominated sexual hierarchy. In northern European art, such scenes of heroic or wise men dominated by women appeared first in the decorative arts of the fourteenth century, and by the early early sixteenth century, engravings and woodcuts by the Master E.S., Lucas van Leyden, Hans Burgkmair, and others had facilitated the spread of the theme. As Koepplin (1974) has pointed out, Cranach the Elder was the first northern artist to treat this theme in the elevated medium of panel painting.

The Met's picture is one of three known versions produced by Cranach and his workshop, the others being the 1529 panel by Cranach in the Kunstsammlungen und Museen Augsburg, and the panel of about 1537–40 attributed to Lucas Cranach the Younger in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden. The Met's work is stylistically consistent with the Augsburg example and surely dates about the same time; however, the prevailing opinion that it must fall somewhat later than 1529 appears to rest solely on the assumption that certain compositional differences in the present version—for example, the more compressed, planar space, the higher horizon that leaves less room for background detail, and the more blocklike group of Philistines—must represent a degeneration from the grander, more elaborate Augsburg picture. Yet those differences may have less to do with chronological sequence than with the relative importance and expense of the commissions. As there is no clear logic of compositional dependency from one picture to the other, the question of which came first is open.

Comparison with other dated works from the same period suggests a range of about 1528–30 for The Met's picture. The 1528 Lot and His Daughters (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) and the 1530 Aristotle and Phyllis (private collection), which are of the same format, both show striking similarities in composition, palette, drapery folds, and figure and costume types. A dating of about 1528–30 is furthermore consistent with the results of dendrochronological analysis of The Met's panel, which indicates an earliest possible fabrication date of 1525. Of special interest on the reverse is the H-like mark carved into the top center, possibly executed by the panel maker (see Additional Images, fig. 3).

Contemporary sources indicate that the Samson and Delilah story was commonly understood as an admonition against divulging secrets. This interpretation was popularized by Sebastian Brant's Narrenschiff (Ship of Fools), first published in Basel in 1494, in which a woodcut of Delilah clipping Samson's hair illustrates the verse, "He who cannot keep a secret / And reveals his intentions to another / Will experience regret, harm, and suffering." The small size of the Museum's picture suggests a private display context, in which it might have conveyed its message of secrecy alongside other subjects that dealt with the folly of love and the power of women. It may also have served as a foil for a heroic depiction of Samson. In particular, Cranach's Samson Slaying the Lion (Schlossmuseum, Weimar) goes well with the painting here; the dimensions match, the design is comparable, and the style also points to the late 1520s. A pairing of those two scenes would have emphasized the magnitude of Samson's descent from heroism to folly.

[2013; adapted from Waterman 2013]
The panel support is composed of two radial-cut beech boards with the grain oriented vertically. Dendrochronological analysis indicated an earliest possible fabrication date of 1525. Two irregular, broad, horizontal bands of tow attached to the panel before the thin white ground was applied were visible in the x-radiograph (see Additional Images, fig. 1). The presence of a barbe and unpainted wood borders at the top and bottom indicate that an engaged frame was in place when the ground was applied. The absence of an unpainted border at the right and left edges suggests the panel was trimmed. The dimensions fall within those for Heydenreich Format C.4 There is insect damage in the left board. On the verso there are chatter marks from woodworking tools, a cluster of three linear incisions, and an application of tow across the slightly diagonal join. In a previous restoration, five narrow horizontal crosspieces were set into the verso of the panel; later, the crosspieces were removed and short sections of wood were inserted to fill the tracks, and a split in the top third of the panel join was repaired with wedges.

Delilah’s red dress and most of the foliage are very well preserved, although the latter exhibits some brownish discoloration commonly seen in paint layers containing copper-green pigments. The winged serpent insignia on the tree trunk at lower right is abraded, as are the flesh and fine details such as the eyelashes. Abrasions in the distant landscape and sky are partially concealed by very old, patchy, discolored restoration paint.

Infrared reflectography (see Additional Images, fig. 2) revealed some underdrawing as well as underpaint in gray and black, including a broadly brushed dark gray beneath the foliage. Areas for the figures, tree trunks and rocks were left in reserve. Contours of facial features, outlines of Samson’s left toes and toenails, and curved lines for the general placement of foliage are visible. The contour of Samson’s left shin was shifted slightly to the right. The veins in his legs were achieved by scumbling over underdrawn lines to create the cool bluish appearance of blood beneath skin.
[2013; adapted from German Paintings catalogue]
Inscription: Signed (center right, on tree stump) with winged serpent
Barrie Simmons (until 1961; sale, Sotheby's, London, June 14, 1961, no. 107, for £11,000 to Markham, bought in; sold for £10,000 to Kleinberger for Payson); Joan Whitney Payson, New York and Manhasset (1961–d. 1975)
Huntington, N.Y. Heckscher Museum. "A Tribute to Whitney Griswold from the Collections of Yale Alumni of Long Island," September 6–29, 1963, unnumbered cat. (lent by Mr. and Mrs. Charles S. Payson).

Brussels. Palais des Beaux-Arts. "L'Univers de Lucas Cranach," October 20, 2010–January 23, 2011, no. 124.

Dieter Koepplin and Tilman Falk. Lukas Cranach: Gemälde, Zeichnungen, Druckgraphik. Exh. cat., Kunstmuseum Basel. Vol. 2, Basel, 1976, p. 574, under no. 471, Koepplin lists the MMA and Dresden paintings as later variants of the Augsberg picture, attributing the Dresden work to Lucas Cranach the Younger and dating it about 1540.

Max J. Friedländer and Jakob Rosenberg. The Paintings of Lucas Cranach. rev. ed. Ithaca, N.Y., 1978, p. 111, no. 213, ill., as possibly by Lucas Cranach the Younger; date it about 1540, noting that the Augsburg version of 1529 is obviously earlier; mention that the Dresden version, "probably a workshop production," is very similar.

Introduction by James Snyder in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Renaissance in the North. New York, 1987, pp. 15, 109, colorpl. 76, dates it about 1529.

Helga Hoffmann. Die deutschen Gemälde des XVI. Jahrhunderts. Weimar, [1990?], p. 60, under no. 19, believes it was painted about the same time as the Dresden picture (on long-term loan to the museum in Weimar), which she dates about 1537 and catalogues as a work by Lucas Cranach the Elder's workshop, tentatively giving it to Lucas Cranach the Younger or to Lucas the Younger with the Cranach workshop.

Aaron Santesso. "William Hogarth and the Tradition of Sexual Scissors." Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 39 (Summer 1999), p. 519 n. 29, dates it 1540 and calls it "more erotically charged" than the earlier Augsburg version.

Dieter Koepplin in Werner Schade et al. Lucas Cranach: Glaube, Mythologie und Moderne. Exh. cat., Bucerius Kunst Forum, Hamburg. Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany, 2003, pp. 147, 162 n. 23, calls Friedländer and Rosenberg's [see Ref. 1978] dating of about 1540 too late.

Peter Klein. Letter to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. April 27, 2006, writes that dendrochronological analysis reveals that the earliest felling date for the tree from which this panel is made is 1524, and that with a minimum of one year for seasoning, the earliest execution date for the painting is 1525.

Guido Messling. L'Univers de Lucas Cranach: un peintre à l'époque de Dürer, de Titien et de Metsys. Exh. cat., Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels. Paris, 2010, p. 217, no. 124, ill. pp. 217 and 243 (color).

Joshua Waterman in German Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1350–1600. New Haven, 2013, pp. 59–62, 287, no. 12, ill. (color) and fig. 53 (color detail, reverse).

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