Samson, a Nazarite to his dying day

The Agony in the Garden folio, which forms part of the Turin-MIlan Hours, portrays the time after the Last Supper when Jesus led three of his disciples to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. While Jesus went away to pray alone, the disciples Peter and the brothers James and John, fell asleep. Jesus prayed and asked for the cup (of suffering) to be taken away if it was his Father’s will. Twice he returned to waken the disciples. Returning a third time he told them to get up as the time had come for him to be betrayed. The cohort sent to arrest Jesus is portrayed behind the fence.

Turin-Milan Hours folio 30v, Agony in the Garden, Hand G, Museo Civico d’Arte Antica of Turin

There is an underlying narrative in the painting which connects to the rather indistinguishable figure in the blue hat. In a previous post I explained the figure is intended to represent a heifer and relates to the story of Samson, one of the last judges of ancient Israel featured in the Old Testament (Judges 13-16), parts of which are alluded to in the Agony in the Garden folio.

In some ways the story of Samson points to Jesus. An angel announced news of Samson’s birth to his infertile mother, as the angel Gabriel announced the birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary.

Samson was a Nazarite; Jesus was a Nazarene from Nazareth.

‘Foxes’ had a role in the lives of both Samson and Jesus.

Samson confessed he would lose his strength if his hair was cut and his head shaved; the power of Jesus came from being the natural ‘heir’ to God’s throne as “the only begotten Son”.

Both Samson and Jesus sacrificed their lives with arms wide open; the blinded Samson was led to stand and push between two pillars; Jesus was nailed to a cross.

Whereas Samson’s sacrifice destroyed a nation of Philistines, the saving sacrifice of Jesus conquered death and saved the world.

Samson’s brothers and family took his lifeless body away and buried him in the tomb of his father Manoah. Followers and relatives of Jesus removed his body from the cross and buried him in the tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea.

The painting makes several other references to Scripture, most notably to verses from Proverbs 30. The artist has also taken verse 12 from Psalm 118 to describe the group sent to arrest Jesus: “They surrounded me like bees; they were extinguished as a fire of thorns. In the name of the Lord I will surely cut them off.”

This section and the verse from Psalm 118 is the starting point for translating the iconography that connects to Sansom.

The “extinguished fire of thorns” are the blackened spears, and the sharp pointed ends of the fence section where the group is “cut off” provides the clue for discovering the bees. Within the indents are four heads of men sent to arrest Jesus. The indented areas accommodate the “collars” of the men. “Collar” is a play on the word “colour” and the colours have a significance. Each “points” to the tail-end of a different type of colour of bee – hence a swarm of bees. In a similar way, the artist has coloured the gowns of Jesus and his three disciples to reference and name the Red Sea, the Sea of Galilee, the Mediterranean Sea, and the “waters under and above the vault (called heaven)” – see this link for details.

So what features portrayed in the cohort group relate to parts of the story of Sansom?

The roped head of Judas represents the new ropes Samson was bound with by Delilah. The long hair of the centre figure (Caiphas) represents the long hair of Samson grown in the tradition of a Nazarite, from which he claimed his strength. It also represents the mane of the young lion that Samson killed and tore to pieces with his bare hands. When Sansom later returned to the carcass he found it contained a swarm of bees and honey. And so we have the link back to the verse from Psalm 118 about the bees and the reference to honey (and the lion’s blood) to the colour on Caiphas’ chest or carcass area. Notice also the suggestion of part of the lion’s head on the man’s shoulder.

Another lion reference is disguised is the strands of hair of the centre figure. It represents the face of Jesus as the Lion of Judah. He is portrayed face to face with his betrayer, Judas, the figure with the roped hat, whose hair is shorn and beard cut short, just as Sansom was after he betrayed the secret of his strength to Delilah. The weakness in Judas became apparent when he betrayed Jesus to the Pharisees and led the cohort to him in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Embedded behind these two profiles are two other images that relate to extracting information and betrayal. The purple hat of the faceless figure directly behind Judas represents an olive. The blue hat of the figure next to it is the jar to receive the olive oil. It’s face is that of a heifer and a reference to Samson’s wife who betrayed her husband by revealing the answer to a riddle he had set the Philistines: “Out of the eater came what is eaten, and out of the strong came what is sweet.” The answer the Philistines gave was: “What is sweeter than honey, and what stringer than a lion?” Samson retorted: “ If you had not ploughed with my heifer, you would not have guessed the riddle.”

As oil is pressed from an olive, so the answer to the riddle was pressed or ploughed by the Philistine’s from Samson’s wife.

Notice also the figure with the blue hat is shown with only one eye, blind at that. It is ‘yoked’ or paired with the blind eye of Judas. The reference to blindness is also linked to when Samson was blinded by the Philistines shortly before his death and again to the earlier time he was blind-sided by Delilah in revealing the secret of his strength.

Another episode in the life of Samson was when he struck down a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey. The reference to the donkey’s jawbone is shown under the chin of the soldier in armour. The donkey’s long ears are indicated either side of the man’s jaw, but the shape of the jawbone weapon is emphasised on the right side of the face and under the chin.

The Samson references are extended to the kneeling figure of Jesus and also link to the three sleeping disiciples, but more about this in a future post.