Sunday, February 24, 2013

Queen Esther in Art - Celebrating Purim 2013

Edward Millais, Esther, 1865
Private Collection

Today is Purim, the Feast of Esther, which celebrates the courage and clever wiles of a young woman who was asked to save her coreligionists (the Jews) from annihilation. On Purim, one donates to those in need, delivers gifts of sweets to friends and family, and celebrates at a festive meal - with permission to drink until "one cannot tell the difference between Mordecai and Haman."

The story of Esther begins with her predecessor Queen Vashti, who refuses her husband King Ahauserus' summons to appear before his guests at his banquet to celebrate seven years as the ruler of the Persian Empire.  

Edwin Long, Vashti Summoned by King Ahasuerus, 1878
Wikimedia Common

The king's angry advisers insist that her insubordination should not be tolerated. Vashti is sent into exile.

Fra Fillippino Lippi, Vashti Goes into Exile, c. 1480

Lonely without a queen, Ahasuerus calls all the eligible maidens to his palace to compete for his favors. Hadassah, a Jew, answers the call at her cousin-guardian Mordecai's urging, but she changes her name to Esther ("star" in Persian) to mask her ethnic identity. After a year of preparation for her night with the king, she adores herself with little more than her charms.

Théodore Chassériau, Esther Preparing to Meet King Ahasuerus, 1840
Musée du Louvre

Esther's beauty and grace enchant the king. She becomes his bride:

Aert de Gelder, Esther Prepared for her Wedding, 1684

Unfortunately, her happiness hits a snag.  Mordecai  refuses to bow down to the king's prime minister Haman. Again, insubordination has its price. Haman seeks revenge and  arranges for the death of all Mordecai's coreligionists, the Jews, on the 15 Adar (chosen by lots - "purim") and seals the deal with the king's stamp.

Mordecai contacts Esther through a messenger to ask for her intervention.  

Aert de Gelder, Mordecai and Esther, 1685 
(or perhaps, a servant before Esther)
Museum of Fine Art, Budapest

The decision to appear before the king without his permission may result in her death (as Vashti, was exiled - or executed - when she refused to appear before the king at his banquet).  The king will decide Esther's fate. Nevertheless, she acts on behalf of her people and to save herself as well. 

Giovanni Andrea Sirani, Esther Before Ahasuerus, 1630s
Museum of Fine Art, Budapest

Esther enters the king's throne room with her servants and finds the king happy to receive her. He encourages her petition and she cleverly invites him to her private chambers for a small banquet in his honor.  The guest list is short: Esther, Ahasuerus and Haman. The meal pleases the king and Haman. She invites them to another dinner party the next day.  

That night the king cannot sleep and has his servants bring his book of chronicles to lull him to slumber. The record of deeds includes Mordecai's report of a plot against the king.  The king calls Haman to his bedchamber to consult on a fitting gesture for "a man who has honored the king."  Crafty Haman assumes the triumphal procession will be for himself.  Instead, Haman ends up leading Mordecai mounted on the king's finest horse through the streets of Susa announcing "this is what becomes of those who honor the king."

Jean-François de Troy, The Triumph of Mordecai. ca. 1736
Metropolitan Museum of Art

The next night, at Esther's second banquet, the king compliments Esther profusely and pledges all manner of gifts to her to express his gratitude. She points to Haman to expose his evil intentions. The king is incensed and leaves the room to cool off.  Haman falls to his knees before Esther to plead for his life. The king returns to see his prime minister touching his wife's hem, which inflames the king's ire to a greater degree. Haman is sentenced to death on the gallows he prepared for Mordecai's public execution on the 15 Adar.

Jan Steen, The Wrath of Ahasuerus, 1668
Cleveland Museum of Art

Mordecai becomes the prime minister in Haman's place. Then the king permits the Jews to defend themselves on the 15 Adar, as he cannot repeal his own law. Mordecai and Esther draft a law to remember this day.  

Aert de Gelder, Esther and Mordecai Writing the Second Letter for Purim, ca. 1685
Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, Providence

The celebration of Purim follows this law and inspires courage in the face of circumstances that seem beyond our control.

What can you do to make the world into a better place for everyone?  Think of Esther and give it your best shot.

Chag Sameach - and Happy Oscar parties to you all,
Beth New York

aka Beth S. Gersh-Nesic, Ph.D.
New York Arts Exchange

No comments: