The Purim holiday of my childhood was about exhilaration—the agitation of finding a costume, the rowdy commotion of the children’s fair with its pie booths, and the rattling of groggers during the reading of the Megillah. But the Purim carnival is embedded in the troubling and bloody Book of Esther, which, like so much of the Hebrew Bible, chronicles family troubles, alliances, misalliances and ascension to power. Succinctly, a Jewish queen saves her people from annihilation and demands retribution against the villain Haman, his family and followers for plotting that destruction. As a result, her cousin Mordecai becomes viceroy and adviser to her husband, Ahasuerus, king of the Persian Empire. The story commemorates Jewish survival but at its core there’s a comprehension that men are murderous, capricious and mercurial and the world remains menacing for women.
I thought about this when I recently saw the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s dramatic Esther Before Ahasuerus, painted by the Italian Baroque artist Artemesia Gentileschi nearly four hundred years ago. Gentileschi, recognized as the finest female artist of the 17th century, developed a reputation for depicting women, particularly figures from the Bible and classical mythology. During her lifetime, she helped contribute to the discourse about the position and nature of women. In correspondence, she once described herself as “the spirit of Caesar in the soul of a woman.”
During the Renaissance and well into the Baroque period and after, the Book of Esther inspired the imagination of artists. Michelangelo painted a masterful but horrifying “Punishment of Haman” in a fresco at the Sistine Chapel. Veronese executed a cycle of Esther stories on the ceiling of the nave of San Sebastian in Venice and the massive The Fainting of Esther, now in the Louvre, is attributed to the School of Veronese. Tintoretto reinterpreted the story, having Esther faint at the foot of a splendid, emerald-colored set of carpeted stairs. Gentileschi must have been familiar with these earlier paintings and you can see her assimilating some of the detail, particularly from Veronese, into her work. Esther was an icon, fusing female devotion and modesty. Her act of bravery was distilled in her determination to intercede for her people by entering the forbidden interior of the King’s chambers even while it was known that those who came without being called would be put to death. Though she faints, she’s saved when the king reaches out his gold scepter and softens justice with mercy.
The story of Esther’s heroism provided Gentileschi with a rich opportunity to show off her particular artistic dexterity and creative power. The gossamer handmaidens’ veils, a bejeweled belt and brocade hem, the gold-edged ribbons on the kings puffed sleeves, the throne with its gold clawed feet and gold mask—all of this is handled with meticulous skill. But her unique genius lies in the empathy she brings to the bear on the psychological interpretation of female character. A viewer will sense the authenticity of Esther’s collapse in the shifted weight of her falling body as it has gone limp and then read the delicate complexity of the queen’s fear on her pale face.
What about Ahasuerus, you might ask. Gentileschi has chosen not to portray him as a formidable turbaned sultan flashing with anger when his wife enters the forbidden inner court. Rather, he sits as a youthful, crowned courtier, dressed in the elaborate clothes of a theatrical and comedic dandy. Using imagination as a weapon, the artist has recalibrated the balance of power in an old story, acknowledging both the emotional seriousness of the material as well as its underlying carnival.
Top image: Esther Before Ahasuerus by Artemesia Gentileschi, Metropolitan Museum of Art