Letter from Antwerp

«Samson and Delilah,» the Rubens masterpiece and one of the London National Gallery’s most popular paintings, may not be a Rubens after all. «In fact, it is a copy,» says Euphrosyne Doxiadis, celebrated scholar (her study on the ancient Fayum paintings has been ensconced on the bestseller lists of art books worldwide) and painter (a pupil of the famous Greek painter Yiannis Tsarouchis, whose sagacious epigrams are still repeated 13 years after his death in July 1989), and who is now in the final stages of writing a book on the «Rubens case,» as she refers to it. I recently met Ms Doxiadis while luncheoning in one of Europe’s best restaurants – full of flavor fireworks – the Sir Anthony van Dyck in idyllic Antwerp’s Koornmarkt. The exquisite braised lamb and the turbot are both specialties of this top restaurant. Flemish Antwerpen (French Anvers), is the second largest seaport in Europe, and the city where Peter Paul Rubens lived most of his life and where he died and is buried. It is very much his city. Ms Doxiadis informed me that new evidence has come to light in recent years which casts more doubts on the authenticity of one of the National Gallery’s most important paintings. «That’s why I am here,» she added, referring to research she began in 1987. «It has been 10 years to the day since I and two painter friends, Sian Hopkinson and Steven Harvey, sent our report about the painting’s problems to the National Gallery on February 18, 1992! «Since you are here, I can show you what an autographed painting by Rubens looks like in Antwerp Cathedral, which houses four of the master’s greatest works, two of them the monumental alterpieces which Rubens was commissioned to paint a few years after his return from Italy. The ‘Samson and Delilah’ is betrayed by its brushstrokes, which are totally uncharacteristic of the master’s swirling animated strokes, and ultimately, by its clumsy technique.» «There are many who doubt the authenticity of this painting,» she went on. Michael Daley, for example, the director of Artwatch UK, the campaigning body which has been critical of National Gallery restoration policies, has published several articles on the problems of the National Gallery Samson. «It does seem astonishing that the National Gallery ever considered buying this picture as a Rubens… Its look is not consistent with a single bona fide Rubens,» he was quoted as saying to Dalya Alberge, The (London) Times arts correspondent, in her article of November 25, 1996. Later on Ms Doxiadis walked me through the 17th-century Rubens’ House where the Flemish Baroque master’s presence is evoked by furniture, utensils and especially his workshop – a magnificent high-ceilinged studio. «The National Gallery acquired the ‘Samson and Delilah’ picture in 1980 for 2.5 million pounds; you’d need a financial wizard to tell you what it would be in today’s prices! It’s astronomical!» Anyway, roles are interchangeable. The good guys can easily become the bad ones – and vice versa. Incited by the subject of the Rubens painting, I opened the Holy Bible to the Samson and Delilah story. The classical situation between a slave to an ungovernable sexuality, and a lecherous Mata Hari. As the Book of Judges of the Old Testament – plus the Cecil B. DeMille’s 1949 classic starring Hedy Lamarr and Victor Mature – instruct us, strongman Samson, who loved one Philistine woman, is ultimately betrayed by another called De-li’lah. Now, searching in the Scriptures one can discover quite a few analogies with present-day situations, considering that: «linguistically, there is a relationship between the words ‘Philistine’ and ‘Palestinian,’» affirms Dr Adel Yahye, an archaeologist who is director of the Palestinian Association for Cultural Exchange (PACE) in Ramallah – the exact place where Samson, always according to the Book of Judges, has slained a thousand men (all Phillistines) using as a weapon a jawbone of an ass. Sure enough one could sustain that one lacks moral weight by equating Israeli and Arab evils. Yet, the evils have been shared by both sides since the Iron Age, when the Philistines and the Israelites/ Judeans were in constant confrontation. Now, in the biblical ages of Philistine occupation («and the Lord deliverd them into the hand of the Philistine forty years») Samson must have been something of a terrorist, carrying out terrorist attacks against the intruders, for at that time the Philistines had dominion over Israel. As a matter of fact, Samson’s ultimate deed was a suicide bombing of the kind exercised last Saturday at a shopping center in a West Bank Jewish settlement, killing two Israelis and wounding 26. Let’s remind ourselves of the biblical story as it is told in the Good Book: «And Samson took hold of the two middle pillars upon which the house stood, and on which it was borne up, of the one with his right hand, and of the other with his left. And Samson said, ‘Let me die with the Philistines.’ And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein. So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life.» Indeed, how very much like modern human bombs?

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