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.
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.
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.
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.
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 [email protected]. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.