What Price Dignity?
Commentary by Amanda Dillon
This intriguing painting forms one end of a Florentine wedding cassone, a decorated wooden chest that would have contained the dowry of a bride entering marriage in the Renaissance period. These marriages were often arranged around strategic political and financial alliances.
Here, we find Vashti banished from the city, standing outside the imposing, fortress-like city gate of Susa—the setting of the biblical narrative. Filippino Lippi’s painting imagines this scene in his own Italian context: a fortified Renaissance city in the Tuscan landscape. In front of Vashti lies the vast kingdom that reaches ‘from India to Ethiopia’ (Esther 1:1), but here all the cultural exoticism that description in the text might conjure to a Western European imagination is rendered bleak, uninhabited, and inhospitable. This is certainly not a vista anyone wants to find themselves facing alone. This was precisely the didactic message of the painting; indeed, the choice of this story for this wedding chest, often presented as a gift from the parents of those being married, implied that the consequences of the bride’s disobedience to her husband might be similar to those of Vashti: ejection from the home and possibly even the city.
Vashti finds herself, in the shadow of the city walls, alone, ostracized, and vulnerable stepping out onto a threshold: a little moat bridge. She is stretching out her left arm as she tentatively steps forward into an uncertain future.
Of course, the text does not mention what happens to Vashti after the king deposes her; is she banished from the city or is she relegated to his harem never to be called forth again? This panel, however, leaves the bride in no doubt about Vashti’s fate. Vashti holds the centre of the composition, adorned in luxurious fabrics (textiles would have formed a key part of a dowry).
Paradoxically, there is a sense of metamorphosis about her dignified posture and gesture, her stepping forth from this cloak, shedding the role of objectified queen almost like a skin, her green dress suggestive that new life is possible, despite all.
His Rage Grew Hot
Commentary by Amanda Dillon
In this lithograph the king, accompanied by his courtiers, towers over Vashti from his throne at the top of a flight of stairs. Vashti, at the lower right, turns away and appears to withdraw into herself.
The biblical text is unclear about the fate of Vashti, and she disappears never to be heard of again. Here, at the foot of the stairs, she looks as though she has been banished to a dark, stony dungeon.
A strong diagonal divides the composition from the lower left to the upper right, separating Vashti from the king and his council. Could it represent collapsing columns in the palace, as Vashti’s ‘disobedience’ is presented not merely as a personal affront to Ahasuerus, but as threatening the stability of his vast kingdom? In this tale, political power and sexual relations are closely interwoven.
Strong emotion is often evoked through colour in Marc Chagall’s work. Vashti, perhaps pensive in expression, adopts a pose that is frequently to be seen in Chagall’s depiction of the prophets—for example the lithographs, Pleurs de Jérémie (1956), David et Bethsabée (1956), Le prophète et l’ange (1979). Her body curves inwards on itself as she contemplates her situation.
Unlike the king, Vashti is not accompanied by an entourage of supporters; she is alone and must rely on her own resources to face the consequences of her decision. She draws her arms around her protectively, crossing them asymmetrically over her body to cover herself, adopting the classical ‘Venus Pudica’ pose (as seen in Masaccio’s c.1425 fresco of Eve leaving the Garden of Eden in shame). Vashti retreats from the glare of the men, and yet she seems unable to escape their gaze altogether. Their eyes, like the viewer’s, follow her—they are evoked in the pattern on her dress.
Ahasuerus is aflame with rage, a burning tower in the inky-blue darkness, his elaborate and highly decorated red gown a reflection of both his heightened emotional state and his regal status.
As his drunkenness turns to outrage, the text describes the king turning to his sages who knew the laws. Here, these figures, diminutive beside their megalomaniac king, reflect his rage in their flushed faces as they look down on Vashti with contempt.
A Persian Burlesque
Commentary by Amanda Dillon
The opening chapters of Esther describe how—after months of lavish drinking banquets—the king sent his eunuchs to fetch his queen, Vashti, that he might display her beauty to the men he had gathered around him. The carnivalesque atmosphere of the book’s opening is captured in this painting by Richard McBee—while the grandeur of the king’s court is also hinted at: white cotton curtains, marble pillars, porphyry, mother-of-pearl, and coloured stones picked up in the pinks and blues of the composition.
This unusual and complex interpretation of the Vashti vignette appears to project the king’s fantasy, for in reality (as the text tells us) Vashti refused to come. A naked Vashti, adorned with little except her tiered crown, a sparkly belt, and possibly a veil, performs a cabaret-style dance, for the implied male gaze of the king and his guests. Her intended objectification as described in the text is here suggested by her representation as an animal with a tail. And she is not just an animal, but a domesticated one—turned into a pet for the king; harnessed, obedient, and performing.
Vashti’s tail, clearly evident in this painting, derives from a collection of rabbinic midrashim that present Vashti in a negative light, implying that she had licentious intent when she organized her own banquet at the other end of the king’s castle. According to an associated tradition, the angel Gabriel came and fixed a tail to her (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 12b). God intervened in various ways to prevent Vashti from heeding Ahasuerus’s request. Thus God directed matters so that Vashti would be deposed and Esther would reign in her stead.
The intriguing second figure in the painting—a naked female ‘hiding’ in the shadows on the other side of the wall—may be interpreted in more than one way. She might be the real Vashti of the text who refused to come forth and be paraded before the men—rejected, isolated, and cast out; stripped of royal status for her refusal to obey. Or she could be Esther, the young woman who would soon be paraded before the king and win his favour.
Berlin, Adele. 2001/5761. Esther, The JPS Bible Commentary (Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society)
Filippino Lippi :
Queen Vashti Leaving the Royal Palace, fragment of a Florentine cassone with the Scenes with the Story of Esther, c.1480 , Oil on panel
Marc Chagall :
Ahaseurus Sends Vashti Away (Assuérus Chasse Vashti), 1960 , Lithograph
Richard McBee :
Vashti's Tail, 1996 , Oil on canvas
Vashti in Profile
Comparative commentary by Amanda Dillon
The atmosphere and celebration of carnival linking it with the feast of Purim, at which this story is traditionally read aloud (twice), is one hermeneutical key to understanding the book of Esther. Adele Berlin identifies the book of Esther as a ‘burlesque’ (2001: xix) and suggests it should be read as a comedy or a farce, replete as it is with exaggeration, caricature, ludicrous situations, practical jokes, coincidences, improbabilities, repetitions of scenes and reversals of circumstance. Irony and sarcasm abound as we progress from banquet to banquet.
The Scroll or Megillah, as the book of Esther is referred to in the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh), opens with Vashti’s refusal to come into the king’s presence when he sends his eunuchs ‘to bring Queen Vashti before the king wearing a royal diadem (1:10). That she was wearing only a royal diadem, without any other clothes on her body, is what the rabbis suggest in their interpretation (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 12b).
An aura of lewdness and debauchery and a ‘tone of excess, buffoonery, and bawdiness’ characterize the opening verses of the book (Berlin 2001: 3). Richard McBee’s painting Vashti’s Tail captures this tone, and presents us with a Vashti acting out the king’s demand. She is represented as a rather bizarre ‘bunny girl’ type of cabaret dancer wearing only her twinkling turreted diadem. Playfully she shows off her tail—only her tail is more that of a monkey than a bunny. We can almost hear the hilarity and raucous response.
But none of this happens in the biblical text; Vashti does not appear before the king in her crown. Like the figure hiding around the corner in the archway, she refuses to obey and come into the presence of the drunken king and his retinue, for their gratuitous ogling. Frenetic brushwork and unusually juxtaposed, lurid colours work here to stir up the heightened atmosphere that pervades the palace of an easily influenced despot liable to fly into a rage at the slightest provocation and prone to sweeping pronouncements that impact the lives of countless subjects.
In Marc Chagall’s interpretation, it might be said that it is the king who appears to be the buffoon. Adorned in an oversized, decorated gown and crown, outward appearances matter to this king. Chagall’s Vashti, seen in profile, is reflective and calm as she turns her back on the puffed-up king and his entourage. Ahasuerus looms larger-than-life, towering over his four diminutive companions, at the top of stairs; the location might be the city gate, the palace gate, or the entrance to a dungeon of sorts. It would seem the king has come into the presence of Vashti, even if only to banish her forever from his. This is an interesting reversal of Vashti’s refusal to come into the presence of the king. It is telling that Esther, the new queen to follow, also greatly fears coming into the presence of the king, most especially unbidden, as the consequence may be death (4:9–11).
Midrashim on Vashti abound, and we are informed that she was the daughter of King Belshazzar of Babylon and the great-granddaughter of King Nebuchadnezzar, the one responsible for the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem (Berlin 2001: liii, 14). On account of her ethnicity and familial lineage (extending back through Babylonian royalty—historic persecutors of the Hebrew people), Vashti is not entitled to sympathy from the Jewish reader. Chagall’s sensitive portrayal of Vashti, situating her close to the viewer in the foreground of his work, is thus another reversal of the conventional reception of this text. He arouses our pathos for her predicament. She retains her crown and her dignity, yet her almost diaphanous dress features many eyes suggestive not just of peacock magnificence but also of the objectifying male gaze from which she withdraws and protectively covers herself.
The narrative opens with a description of power, wealth, and grandeur on a stupendous scale. This is an aspect of the Esther story that made it fittingly attractive as a parable to decorate the sumptuous wedding chests that marked marital alliances in Florentine patrician society. The cassoni were paraded through the city streets, behind the wedding party, as part of the wedding procession—another carnivalesque context. Filippino Lippi’s banished Vashti, not unlike Chagall’s, steps forward tentatively, but is demure and resigned to her fate. Her dignity and autonomy are intact, if not her crown—despite the precariousness of her new situation.
Berlin, Adele. 2001/5761. Esther, The JPS Bible Commentary (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society)