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Innovation and Imitation in Albrecht Dürer’s Samson

Albrecht Dürer: Art in Transition
July 26-September 21, 2008
Museum of Biblical Art
1865 Broadway at 61st Street, New York


German artist, Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut “Samson Slaying the Lion” (1497-98) shows the warrior-prophet with the unkempt hair and beard of a Nazarite, sitting on the back of a lion, whose jaws he pulls apart. The lion looks up at Samson with surprise, its arched tongue mimicking Samson’s curly hair as it gasps for breath. Although Dürer has carefully etched the castles and cityscape in the background, he (probably intentionally) blurs the boundary between Samson, the lion and its wavy mane, and a cliff in the middle-ground. The viewer gets the sense that man and cat meld, and Samson is perhaps fighting not only an actual lion but also grappling with the inner beast that leads him to massacre Philistines and ultimately take his own life.

Dürer’s Samson, which is part of the exhibit “Albrecht Dürer: Art in Transition” at the Museum of Biblical Art, bears some resemblance to the biblical Samson, with a few important modifications. Samson seems to have encountered the lion descending from the top right corner, which follows the biblical account of Samson and his parents going down to Timnah.

According to Judges 14, Samson demanded that his parents take a Philistine wife for him from Timnah. His parents, not knowing that this intermarriage was divinely ordained, asked him, “Is there no wife for you among the daughters of your brothers and in my whole nation [the text uses the singular] – that you go to take a wife from the uncircumcised Philistines?” Still, Samson persisted, so his parents accompanied him to Timnah. Along the way, at the vineyards of Timnah, Samson killed a young lion without his parents’ knowledge, which suggests his parents went through the vineyard while Samson circumvented it, not wanting to temp himself with the grapes that were forbidden to him as a Nazarite.

Dürer removes Samson’s parents from his woodcut, which explains why they are ignorant of their son’s wrestling feat. But the woodcut also removes the vineyard, replacing it with foliage that looks more European than Middle Eastern, a move that hardly surprises Ena Heller, executive director of MOBIA. “Very often Dürer’s landscapes reflect his German surroundings, or his trips, so they cannot necessarily be read as either historically accurate, or symbolic,” she said in an interview.

“Dürer’s fascination for nature led him to ‘portraying’ landscapes which may or may not connect directly with the narrative theme.” Heller added that artists in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance often set biblical scenes in contemporary landscapes, and mixed and matched contemporary and biblical characters to populate those scenes. 



Israhel van Meckenem. “Samson Slaying the Lion”, 1475. Engraving.

From the collection of the British Museum.


In fact, a good argument can be made that the woodcut was influenced by Dürer’s fellow German artist, Israhel van Meckenem. Van Meckenem’s 1475 engraving “Samson and the Lion”, which appears in several collections, including the British Museum and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., has many of the same elements as Dürer’s: Samson sitting on the lion’s back, the lion’s jaws being wrested apart, similar treatment of Samson’s and the lion’s curls, and a castle on a cliff in the background.

Surely there are also differences: van Meckenem shows a younger Samson with no beard, while Dürer turns the lion around so that he can see his antagonist, while van Meckenem lion faces away from Samson. Even though it seems clear that Dürer was influenced, at least in part, by his predecessor’s work, he adds an elaborate landscape and cityscape where van Meckenem’s remains relatively bare.


Van Meckenem’s Samson is by no means the first instance of artistic interpretation of this biblical narrative, which has been depicted quite a few times. The so-called Boucicaut Master, who worked in Paris in the early 15th century – often directly for the French king – created a “Samson and the Lion” in 1415, which shows Samson, dressed in a bright red robe with a pointed red hat, wrestling a lion by prying its jaws apart. The Boucicaut Master shows the lion’s tongue sticking out of its mouth almost like a cigarette, and he surrounds the scene with trees and cliffs. Two figures, clad like Samson with hats and robes, witness the scene from above, perhaps a Christian interpretation of the text, or perhaps alluding to Samson’s rivals who later learn the riddle of the honeycomb derived from the lion’s mane by bribing Samson’s wife. 




Albrecht Dürer. “Samson Slaying the Lion”, 1497-98. Woodcut.

Courtesy of the Museum of Biblical Art.


Another image, which dates from 1430, shows Samson attacking the lion’s jaws. The work, by the so-called Master of Otto van Moerdrecht, a Netherlandish illuminator named for his most important patron, is in the collection of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek at The Hague. Like in the Boucicaut Master’s work, this Samson rides the lion, which faces away from the prophet, as if it is a horse. The rider and lion move from left to right, with their backs to a walled city, passing between green cliffs and trees.

This work follows another “Samson kills the lion with his bare hands”, created in 1332 by Michiel van der Borch. In the 14th century illumination on vellum, which was part of a bible by the Flemish poet, Jacob van Maerlant, Samson faces the lion and pulls its jaws apart.


Boucicaut Master. “Samson and the Lion”, Circa 1415. Tempera colors, gold leaf, and gold paint on parchment. From the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.


Similar interpretations surface in the Sub-Fauvel Master’s 1320-40 miniature (which provocatively adds Samson’s parents to the background), and a miniature by an unknown French master circa 1250-1300, both of which are also in the collection of The Hague. The unknown French illustrator of Petrus Comestor’s “Bible Historiale” (1372) also shows Samson’s parents, but they walk toward the right side of the page with their backs toward (and thus oblivious of) Samson’s wrestling match in the left corner.


It is unclear why all the artists discussed above interpreted Samson’s rout of the lion as an act of prying its jaws apart. Perhaps the artists drew their inspiration from the many (secular) depictions of Hercules fighting a lion that preceded them. According to mythology, Hercules was tasked with 12 labors by King Eurystheus, the first of which was slaying the Nemean Lion and bringing its skin back to the Mycenaean king. Artistic depictions of this scene show either Hercules clubbing the lion with a cudgel (which becomes his symbol in many artistic contexts), or pulling its jaws apart.



Unknown French illustrator of Petrus Comestor’s “Bible Historiale“, 1372.         

Museum Meermanno Westreenianum, The Hague.


I wonder if there may not also be an artistic fascination with the lion’s jaw that is rooted in the biblical text. After all, Samson later uses the jaw bone of a donkey he has killed to fight Philistines. Perhaps this revealed to the artists that Samson was in the habit of dismembering his victims, or at least the animals he defeated, and saving the jaw bone. Perhaps it also alludes to Samson’s tragic flaw – his mouth, which gets him into trouble when he reveals his secret to his traitorous wife.

Yet, as Heller warned, these sorts of hypotheses must all be carefully weighed and proven. “The scholar who wrote this exhibition’s catalog agrees with that influence; not only the open jaws but also Samson’s pose, with one foot on the lion’s neck, can be traced to Meckenem’s engraving”, she said. “On the other hand, I have not come across any interpretations that relate this to the jaw bone used later, so I would suspect that to be purely speculative.”



Michiel van der Borch. Samson kills the lion with his bare hands“, 1332. Illumination on vellum. Museum Meermanno Westreenianum, The Hague. From Jacob van Maerlant’s “Rhimebible” of Utrecht.


What is clear is that this depiction of the text, which Dürer inherited, was passed on to future artists, most immediately Lucas Cranach the Elder, whose “Samson vanquishing the lion” (circa 1520-25) picks up where Dürer left off; a sandaled Samson steps on the lion’s neck (a direct quotation from Dürer), while pulling its jaws apart, and the castle appears right where it belongs, on a cliff in the background.

But Cranach misses one aspect of Dürer’s work that might be his own invention. Where all the other artists show the lion flattened in profile (perhaps suggesting inspiration from the cartoon depictions of the Zodiac sign Leo), Dürer rounds the lion’s face out and makes it look real and three-dimensional. In fact, Dürer’s Samson has to cover the lion’s face with his hands to kill it, which might further reinforce the thesis that Dürer’s Samson is grappling, at least in part, with his inner lion.

Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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