Rembrandt’s Samson Tells a Riddle at His Feast

The distinguished painting, Samson Tells a Riddle at his Feast, by artist Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, interprets the knowledgeable scene of a biblical figure, Samson, and his wife at their wedding feast. Judges 14 of the Bible details the background story of the painting – how Samson met a Philistine woman and chose her as his wife. Before he can take his new bride’s hand in marriage, Samson is withheld by a dangerous lion. Samson, however, is determined to join his lady and slays the beast.

Oddly, Samson finds a swarm of bees surrounding a honeycomb inside the lion’s carcass. From this discovery, Samson formulates a riddle, which he tells to all of the guests at the feast of his wedding. The riddle goes like this: “Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness”. Samson tells his guests that if they can solve the riddle within seven days’ time, he will reward them with something great. No one can uncover or understand Samson’s riddle, and so they beg Samson’s wife to reveal the secret of the riddle to them.

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Samson’s wife, too, hasn’t a clue… so she asks Samson herself. He denies her the answer for seven days, until he finally gives into her pleading and reveals the answer. Samson’s wife then unfolds the answer to all of her party guests, and when they approach Samson with the answer, he scolds and punishes them all, as well as his wife for betraying and cheating him. Samson leaves his new wife, but when he comes to his senses and his anger subsides, Samson returns to her. The Philistines inform Samson that they have already given her away to marry another man.

Rembrandt’s painting is an artistic parallel to the Bible’s tale of Samson and his riddle at his wedding feast. Within the painting are many people conversing, including Samson and many young men. As well, Samson’s wife is portrayed alone, sitting in the middle of the room by herself. Samson’s wife is the focal point of the artwork. It is perplexing as to why Samson’s wife is the focal point of the painting, and so too that she is alone and ignored from the others at the feast. Rembrandt chose to isolate her and disengage her from the party, but still illuminate her and acknowledge her solitude.

An observer cannot turn his or her eye away from the spectacle of this painting, but yet there are so many complex details and events occurring in the shadows. Why would Rembrandt portray this scene in this way? It is clear that Samson’s wife is the main focus in Rembrandt’s painting. The first clue is that Rembrandt has arranged the colors in his painting in a very meaningful and strategic way. The brightest, boldest whites and yellows are covering Samson’s wife in the center. As the room pans out, the colors become deeper and darker.

The bright colors draw the viewer’s eye immediately to Samson’s wife, where as the “action” within the painting is shadowed in dark hues. Bright colors are usually cognitive with happiness, positivity, and goodness, while dark colors are tied to sadness, negativity, and evil. This is ironic because in Rembrandt’s painting, these feelings seemed to be reversed. Samson’s wife, in the lightness, appears upset, alone, and forlorn, while all of the guests. In darkness, seem to be having a grand old time. Samson’s wife appears miserable.

None of her guests are even paying attention to her at her own wedding feast. Everyone besides Samson’s wife seems to be involved in his or her own conversations. One couple is even kissing directly in front of her. Even Samson, her own husband ignores her. Samson is too busy entertaining his guests with his riddle to pay attention to his new wife, and in fact will not trust his own wife with the answer to his riddle. His choice to withhold this information from her is correct in judgment, however, because she will in fact spread the answer to the riddle eventually in the future.

Samson’s position in the painting is facing away from his wife and leaning suspensefully out of his seat. This may be a hint that Samson will soon leave his wife later in the story. Another evidentiary observation about Samson’s wife is that she clearly feels that she doesn’t belong, even at her own dinner party! Everything in her appearance is completely different from the others in the painting. Not only is she sitting in solitude, but she is the only character in the painting whose gaze is toward the viewer.

It’s as if the viewers of the painting are the only ones who will pay her any sort of attention. Her posture is similar to the way one would take a portrait. In fact, Samson Tells a Riddle at his Feast could be viewed as a lonely portrait of a single woman, despite the busy crowd of people among her. How ironic that Rembrandt has focused this entire painting around making Samson’s wife the center of the painting, especially when she remains nameless and does not even appear in the painting’s title, Samson Tells a Riddle at his Feast.

This face could also hint that Rembrandt himself is ignoring Samson’s wife, by forgetting her in the title. Samson, after all, is not primarily featured in this painting. Another connection and element of clarity is introduced once Rembrandt’s personal life is explored. This painting was created in the year of 1638. Saskia, Rembrandt’s wife, had a hard time raising healthy children – as both her son and daughter, Rubartus and Cornelia, died very shortly after birth.

Perhaps Rembrandt poured his suffering and hardships that he must have been feeling at the given time into his artwork. Life might have seemed like a party to everyone else… but to Saskia, life was forlorn, lonely, and spent in mourning. Rembrandt could be paralleling his own wife and her feelings to Samson’s wife. Her loneliness may be a symbol of isolation, but the glowing white light surrounding Samson’s wife might be a metaphor in hope that Rembrandt’s wife could someday raise a healthy child.

The colors, tones, feelings, historical context, personal background of the artist’s life, and the story of Samson and his wife all compile to create the mood and message of Samson Tells a Riddle at his Feast by Rembrandt. Exploring these details has opened a whole new world of analytical thinking and many new ideas are in turn evaluated and contemplated. Overall, the many symbols hidden within the painting join to create a very complicated story wrapped up into a single visual, artistic masterpiece.

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Rembrandt’s Samson Tells a Riddle at His Feast. (2018, Feb 16). Retrieved from