Giambologna's Sculpture 'Samson and a Philistine ' at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London

by KathleenDuffy

Giambologna's 'Samson and a Philistine' is the most emotionally dramatic and important scupture in the Victoria and Albert Museum's Medieval and Renaissance Galleries

The Victoria and Albert Museum’s refurbished Medieval and Renaissance Galleries opened on 2nd December 2009.

Dominating the main gallery is a monumental marble statue, 'Samson and a Philistine' by Giambologna – sometimes known as Giovanni Bologna or Jean Boulogne.

'Samson and a Philistine' stands at just under seven feet in height and is the only monumental marble statue by Giambologna outside Florence. It is stunning from every angle.

Amongst Renaissance statues to have left Italy, this is considered to be the finest, apart from Michaelangelo’s 'Slaves', which is in the Paris Louvre.

This article, which was first published on Suite101 in 2010, attempts to explain the impact of this work and, I hope, will encourage you to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum if you are in London so that you can see this moving sculpture for yourself!

Giambologna's Early Life

Samson and the Philistine by Giambologna at Victoria and Albert Museum
Samson and the Philistine by Giambologna at Victoria and Albert Museum

In his article, “Virtue and Vice” (Art Quarterly, Winter 2009) James Hall explains how Giambologna was born in Douai in 1529.  At that time Douai was  part of the Spanish Netherlands. Today it is a commune in Northern France.  

Around 1544 Giambologna was apprenticed to Jacques Due Broeucq, a prominent Flemish sculptor.  The young sculptor finished his apprenticeship in 1550. Like other northern artists of this period, he decided to visit Rome in order to witness at first hand the art of Renaissance Italy, in particular the work of Michaelangelo.

At this period antique sculptures were still  being excavated in Rome and Giambologna made many wax and clay studies based on his observations.

A portrait of Giambolgona in later life

Portrait of Giambologna in 1591 by Hendrik Goltzius
Portrait of Giambologna in 1591 by Hendrik Goltzius

Giambologna Settles in Florence


Giambologna intended to return to his northern home, but fate stepped in.

Breaking his journey in Florence he was persuaded by the ruling Cosimo Dukes to stay and work for them. He never returned home and in the mid-1660s he became court sculptor to Duke Cosimo l de’Medici.

As Hall has pointed out, Giambologna would probably have felt at home in Florence as Flemish craftsmen and designers were the main artists in the tapestry workshops of the Medici.

Giambologna’s Commission for 'Samson and a Philistine'

Samson and the Philistine by Giambologna
Samson and the Philistine by Giambologna

Giambologna created Samson and a Philistine for Francesco de’ Medici, the heir to the Dukedom. It shows a scene from the Old Testament in which Samson, captured and bound by the Philistines, with Herculean strength, breaks free and grabbing the jawbone of an ass, slays the whole Philistine army.

This monumental commission became the centrepiece of a fountain in Francesco’s garden.

The Florentine republic traditionally commissioned sculptures depicting antique or biblical heroes triumphing over adversity.  These commissions were, in effect, political statements. They warned Florence’s enemies that she could not be overcome, that Florence, like her biblical and mythical counterparts, was virtuous.

Samson and a Philistine is in this tradition and, according to Hall, can be compared with:

  • Donatello’s David (1440s) and Judith and Holofernes (1460)
  • Cellini’s Perseus and Medusa (1545-54)
  • Michaelangelo’s Victory 


Perseus by Benvenuto Cellini

Perseus by Benvenuto Cellini.

David by Donatello

Donatello's David, 1408

Victory by Michelangelo Buonarroti

The Genius of Victory, 1532-34

The Emotional Impact of 'Samson and a Philistine'

Samson and the Philistine by Giambologna at Victoria and Albert Museum.
Samson and the Philistine by Giambologna at Victoria and Albert Museum.

Giambologna is often referred to as a great sculptor in the Mannerist style. In other words, his works may be seen as stylised, formulaic, technically brilliant and perhaps over-theatrical. But James Hall sees Samson and a Philistine as having “haunting emotional depth and complexity”.

Hall gives the following pointers, which he believes give the work such emotional complexity:

  • There is only one Philistine depicted, giving an intimacy between the older man and the younger victim.
  • The victim is humanised. We see his beautiful face thrown back, his eyes meeting those of his attacker.
  • The statue draws on other mythical and biblical stories where young men have been harshly treated by older men: Michaelangelo’s drawing The Fall of Phaeton, Lorenzo Ghiberti’s image of Abraham sacrificing his son on the Florentine Baptistery doors, and the fact that in 17th century England the image was at one time mistaken for Cain and Abel.

Sacrifice of Isaac, Bronze Relief for the Baptistry Doors, Florence By: Lorenzo Ghiberti

The Sacrifice of Isaac, Bronze Competition Relief for the Baptistry Doors, Florence, 1401

The Fall of Phaeton, sketch by Michaelangelo

The Fall of Phaeton, 1533

Samson and a Philistine is a deeply moving work embodying aspects of Florentine Renaissance political and social culture that reach out to us across the centuries.

As James Hall writes, we are indeed 'privileged to have it in our midst'.



“Virtue and Vice” by James Hall in Art Quarterly, Winter 2009

Updated: 01/17/2014, KathleenDuffy
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


KathleenDuffy on 01/17/2014

Hello Tolovaj - I absolutely agree. It's difficult to imagine. It would be wonderful to be able to go back in time and see the whole process from start to finish.

Tolovaj on 01/17/2014

It is really hard to imagine how much skill had old masters who used so primitive tools to create such masterpieces. Samson and a Philistine is great example!

KathleenDuffy on 01/17/2014

Hi Mira - Thanks for your comment - it is so realistic isn't it! (Not that I've seen many men being slayed) :)

Mira on 01/17/2014

Indeed, that eye contact is very powerful, and the sculpture quite nice. I like that you show it from different angles.

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