The Blinding of Samson, 1636
The scene is magnificent and horrible at once – and one of Rembrandt’s masterpieces. The story is told in the Old Testament. Samson possesses invincible powers, and only he knows the secret that lies behind them: it is the fact that his hair has not been cut since his birth. His beloved Delilah desires to learn the secret as proof of his love. Ultimately, however, her demand is nothing but treachery – the Philistines have offered her a fortune for this service. In Rembrandt’s depiction, Delilah has just cut off Samson’s hair; her accomplices pounce on the weakened hero and blind him.
Yet what is it exactly that accounts for the tremendous drama of this work? Rembrandt has painted the instant of greatest cruelty, the swift stab in the eye. Every one of the figures is in action; even the victim is tense to the very tips of his toes. The entire scene takes place in a cave-like room glaringly lit from without; the resulting strong contrasts of light and shade underscore the violence and support the theatrics. The iconographically innovative work was not painted on commission, but motivated purely by artistic ambition. It shows the quintessence of brutality – and has lost nothing of its disturbing impact to this day.