(b. 1431, Isola di Cartura, d. 1506, Mantova)

Samson and Delilah

Tempera on canvas, 47 x 37 cm
National Gallery, London

From 1490 onwards, Mantegna produced a series of illusionistic works representing sculptural reliefs in marble or bronze. These are in grisaille, light and dark tones of a single colour creating figures that stand against a background simulating boldly patterned marble. In Italy, pictures like this, which appear to be carved in stone, were first seen in the bases of Giotto's frescoes in the Arena Chapel in Padua, where he illustrated the seven Virtues and seven Vices. At the end of the 15th century, grisaille work was in great demand, and Mantegna painted a number of pictures in this technique, including Samson and Delilah, a small masterpiece from a series illustrating the theme of "women's wiles." This was a series of stories that had been retold in images since antiquity, stories that supposedly illustrated women's cunning.

Samson is the heroic figure with superhuman strength whose story is told in the Old Testament Book of Judges. His wife Delilah was to find the secret of his strength After he told her that the secret lay in his hair, Delilah cut his hair off and the Philistines were able to capture Samson and blind him. The grapevine entwined round the tree is a symbol of Samson's drunken stupor. The inscription carved in the tree trunk warns that women are more wicked than even the Devil.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 10 minutes):
Camille Saint-Saens: Samson et Delila, Delila's aria