Samson Rending the Lion, c. 1496
woodcut on laid paper
38.8 x 28 cm
National Gallery of Canada (no. 1837)
This woodcut amply demonstrates Dürer’s superiority among German printmakers such as Israhel van Meckenem or the engraver known only as Master E.S., who had recently tackled the same subject in a much less impressive manner. The brute strength and determination on Samson’s face, the detailed flouncing of his shirt sleeves, the realism and power of the lion he straddles, and the naturalism of the landscape - all contribute to the image’s masterful authority. Dürer also surpasses his predecessors by the range of textures he achieves and the balanced composition of figures in pyramidal form. As a young man, Samson, the last of the Old Testament Judges of Israel, demonstrated his strength by slaying a lion with his bare hands. The subject’s relationship to the mythological story of Hercules and the Nemean lion and its mingling of classical and biblical iconographical traditions would have appealed to Dürer’s circle of humanist friends in Nuremberg.