On Purim, Dr. Noa Yuval-Hacham, Dean of Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, decodes human relationships via two paintings depicting the meeting of King Ahasuerus and Queen Esther.
The story of the Book of Esther in general, and Esther’s character in particular, have ignited artistic imagination from time immemorial.
Esther, the anonymous Jewish girl who becomes a queen and, through her wit, saves her people from annihilation, has merited many and varied artistic representations.
Artists have focused particularly on the dramatic turning points in the story of the Book of Esther.
Today we will focus on one of those points: Esther’s uninvited appearance before Ahasuerus, as described in the fifth chapter of the Book of Esther.
We have before us an illustration from a Jewish manuscript originating in northeastern France, completed in 1278, which describes this scene, and specifically the verse: ‘The king extended to Esther the golden scepter which he had in his hand, and Esther approached and touched the tip of the scepter’ (Esther 5:2).
The illustration is divided into two equal and balanced parts, each of which is devoted to one figure: the right-hand one to Ahasuerus and the left-hand one to Esther. The artistic balance is achieved through the use of different shades of red/crimson and blue. Ahasuerus appears against a blue background and is dressed in red and cloaked in a royal crimson cloak, whereas Esther appears against a crimson background and is dressed in shades of blue.
However, it would be a mistake to believe that the artist sees Ahasuerus and Esther as figures of equal status. While they are portrayed at equal height, note that Ahasuerus is seated and Esther is standing!
Were Ahasuerus to rise from his seat, we would see that he is taller than Esther, and we are not dealing with a mere technical issue: in medieval art, size often reflects importance. The difference in height hints at the fact that the event described in the illustration expresses Esther’s inferiority before the king, for the king could sentence her to death for having entered the internal court without a summons.
In this way the artist gently alludes to the great tension imbedded in this scene, a tension that is clearly expressed in the Greek translations of the Book of Esther and in midrashic literature.
Thus, for example, in the Septuagint, the early Greek translation of the Bible, we are told that Ahasuerus first looked angrily at Esther, causing her to faint, and only after God transformed the king’s heart to favor Esther did he approach her and speak kindly to her.
This tradition, which expands on the tension present in the meeting between the king and queen and intensifies it, received visual expressions as well, such as in the painting titled ‘Esther Before Ahasuerus’ from 1630, by the Italian painter Artemesia Gentileschi (1).
On the left we see Esther, comatose, supported by two maids, and on the right Ahasuerus, who looks at her in concern and is preparing to rise from his chair and approach her.
The artist emphasizes the pallor of the unconscious Esther, who has appeared before the king following a three-day fast.
The artist devotes much attention to the king and queen’s magnificent attires, as well as to their body language: their poses complement each other in a kind of dance: Esther faints and her body reclines backwards, and Ahasuerus prepares to rise from his throne, with his body leaning forward, toward her.
In any case, Gentileschi, who must have identified greatly with Esther’s character, provides powerful expression for the tension experienced by the queen before the critical meeting with the king.
HAPPY PRUIM FROM SCHECHTER
(1.) Artemesia Gentileschi, Esther before Ahasuerus, 1630
This painting was drawn by an Italian painter of the 17th century, Artemesia Gentileschi (1593-1753). Female painters were a rather unusual phenomenon in her day, due to the limitations placed on the training of women in this field. The fact that Gentileschi achieved great success despite these limitations and became a respected and famous painter testify both to her special personality and to her outstanding talent, a talent that awarded her the status of the first woman in history to complete the course of study of art in the art academy of Florence.
Noa Yuval-Hacham is the Dean of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and a lecturer and academic advisor in the Land of Israel Studies and Judaism and the Arts tracks. She earned her PhD in 2011 from Hebrew University. Dr. Yuval-Hacham’s research deals with ancient art in the Land of Israel and the Jewish Diaspora, with a special emphasis on Jewish art and its relationship with neighboring cultures in late antiquity. She lives in Efrat with her husband and five children.