The National Gallery has withdrawn a YouTube video featuring a commentary on its Rubens painting Samson and Delilah after a complaint by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre.
The picture has been owned by the National Gallery since 1980 and, like many paintings in its collection, has frequently been used for teaching purposes. In this case the commentary was given by a freelance art lecturer, James Heard. Mr Heard worked for the National Gallery for 45 years.
In the YouTube video, Mr Heard speaks of “the Israelite Samson, who in essence was a terrorist who slaughtered 1,000 Philistines”. He also refers to Samson as having taken “300 foxes, tying torches to their tails” and setting them alight, “sent them into the cornfields of the Israelites”.
In fact, as the National Gallery’s own online glossary makes clear, Samson did send out the burning foxes — but towards his enemy, the Philistines.
The Wiesenthal Centre became involved after it received a complaint that Mr Heard’s commentary had “politicised” Samson and the Philistines. One of her colleagues had watched the video and concluded that Samson had been “an Israeli” who was a “terrorist against the Palestinians”, and that by sending the foxes against the “Israelites”, he was in fact “a double agent”.
Dr Shimon Samuels, the Wiesenthal Centre’s director for international relations, contacted the National Gallery’s director, Gabriele Finaldi, to warn that James Heard’s presentation was “contentious and erroneous”.
The National Gallery decided to review the Samson and Delilah video, which was a filmed version of one of the hundreds of lunchtime lectures that regularly take place there.
Its head of learning and national programmes, Karen Eslea, told the Wiesenthal Centre that the National Gallery accepted the complaint that the commentary was misleading. She said: “I am so sorry that the video has caused offence, and I have asked our digital team to remove it from YouTube immediately. Thank you for making us aware of this important issue”.