Esther Pleads for Her People
Paradoxes of Power
Commentary by Ayla Lepine
Sensitive to the variations of the Greek Septuagint’s (LXX) longer version of this narrative, Guercino directly alludes to three encounters between Esther and the king (Perlove 1989: 36–39). A Septuagintal addition has Esther coming before the king with two maids ‘leaning daintily on one with the other carrying her train’ (Additions to Esther 15:3–4), and describes her as both beautiful and terrified. Here, two women support the body of Esther who is overcome with emotion before the throne of King Ahasuerus. One of them weeps and pleads while the other regards her queen with tender admiration.
The contrast between Esther’s anguish and the king’s composure appears to reinforce a conventional gender binary. But things are more complicated. Ahasuerus’s gesture of relinquishment is merely symbolic: the edict under his authority must be enforced. So—paradoxically powerful and powerless—his kingship is here both lauded and compromised. Both his hands make contact with his symbols of power, but lightly, less bold than resigned.
Meanwhile, Esther’s limp body supported by two attendants recalls both Pietà and Crucifixion imagery: of Mary fainting in sorrow, and of Christ collapsed in death (Perlove 1989: 136). This iconographic strategy merges the emotional range of the queen with that of both Jesus and his mother.
The juxtaposition of the depth of risk and sacrifice evident in Esther’s physical vulnerability with the qualified nature of the king’s power makes a sharp point. Potent salvific powers may be at work in the midst of Esther’s apparent weakness. The queen’s pose renders her not simply vulnerably feminine but, read typologically, Christ-like.
Nonetheless, even if suggesting the king’s limits, Guercino also shows us his compassion. In this respect a different comparison is generated: between the king and the ruler whom Christ confronted—Pontius Pilate. There was a lesson in mercy here, perhaps, for Cardinal Magalotti, the patron of this work, under whose protection were many Jews.
Perlove, Shelley. 1989. ‘Guercino’s “Esther Before Ahasuerus” and Cardinal Lorenzo Magalotti, Bishop of Ferrara’, Artibus et Historiae, 10.19: 133–47
A Threefold Cord of Pain
Commentary by Ayla Lepine
Patricia Cronin’s installation revives the histories of countless girls on holy ground. It consists of three piles of clothes within a chapel. Katrina Larkin (1996: 88–89) has argued that Esther may be understood in relation to Exodus: a fruitful path for interpreting Cronin’s work. A longed-for release from persecution and injustice infuses each thread of Cronin’s trio of tragic heaps.
Esther’s plea to the king is structured as a poetic repetition that announces her strategy and appeals to his power:
if it please the king, and if I have found favour in his sight, and if the thing seem right before the king, and I be pleasing in his eyes, let an order be written… (Esther 8:5)
She links her own self with the suggestion she offers, uniting her own identity wholly with the identity of her people and her royal role, recognizing all these elements as contingent and frail in relation to the king’s royal power. Dazzling and subversive, Esther’s plea is also fragile and submissive.
In Cronin’s installation, the fragile beauty of textiles laid sacrificially upon the altar press questions of memory and identity. The garments refer to three groups, who together fuse into an allegory of oppressed women: gang-raped and murdered girls in India, the 276 girls kidnapped in 2015 by Boko Haram in Nigeria, and girls forced to work in Magdalene Laundries in Ireland. While not generalizing women’s suffering (aware of the distinctiveness of each of the three histories it invokes), this weaving together of three narrative strands emphasizes a shared human problem. Cronin weaves a threefold cord of female pain.
Abuse and exploitation mark each item of clothing. Combined in this context, they acquire a capacity to confront and pierce our consciences. The colours of the clothes are vivid; their forms recall the folds of Esther’s luxurious garments in Old Master paintings like Guercino’s, and yet the girls that these inanimate textiles represent must plead for their people differently from her. Cronin, in laying out these objects and images, calls for justice by memorializing and honouring those whose stories are too often forgotten.
Larkin, Katrina J. A. 1996. Ruth and Esther (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press)
Commentary by Ayla Lepine
John Everett Millais emphasises Esther’s boldness. To state her case, she must enter the Persian king Ahasuerus’s private chamber. The white walls, gilded columns, and rich blue curtain heighten our awareness of this threshold and of her intrepidness in crossing it. This is the turning point of the narrative, in which Esther’s risky plea to the Persian king will result in the salvation of the Jews from genocidal persecution, Esther herself having been given ‘a measure of royal power, which she exercises along with [her cousin] Mordecai in the composition of the edict’ (Barton and Muddiman 2012: 648; see Esther 8:8–9).
Esther is both regal and, momentarily, informal. Her left hand holds her crown protectively; her right pulls at the ornament in her hair, loosening it in preparation for her impassioned meeting with the king. The brightly coloured striations blazing across the bottom of the billowing yellow silk cloak were a deliberate and innovative use of an unusual piece of clothing: a ceremonial coat offered in 1864 to the British general Charles Gordon by the Chinese government. Millais, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, borrowed the coat in order to incorporate its likeness into this visual interpretation of Esther—a biblical heroine who spoke on behalf of her oppressed people within the confines of a strict state regime.
Interestingly, Millais represented the coat inside out, transforming its appearance from an Asian symbol of court life into an abstract pattern of woven threads (Rosenfeld and Smith 2007: 154). A gift between contemporary male leaders becomes a glossy, silken ‘armour’ for Esther, whose narrative is not only one of strength but also of vulnerability. Millais’s interpretation conflates Esther 5:1 and 8:1–12 (and references the ‘splendid attire’ mentioned in chapter 15 of the Greek Septuagint’s Additions to Esther). In Millais’s hands the silk jacket is both Esther’s raiment and a metaphor for her subversion of prevailing monarchical authority, as she turns the state system inside out from within.
Barton, John, and John Muddiman. 2012. The Oxford Bible Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
Rosenfeld, Jason, and Alison Smith. 2007. Millais (London: Tate)
Esther before Ahasuerus, 1639 , Oil on canvas
Patricia Cronin :
Shrine for Girls, as installed in La Biennale di Venezia, curated by Ludovico Pratesi, 2015 , Saris and photograph
John Everett Millais :
Esther, 1863–65 , Oil on canvas
Esther’s Performative Body
Commentary by Ayla Lepine
The book of Esther traces the crucial decision-making of a woman who finds herself at a profound social and cultural disadvantage. Esther’s capacity to strategize, to protect, and to transform her vulnerability into unique strength offers a way through the wilderness which is Israel’s oppression. Esther’s narrative is one of politically canny opposition in the face of brutal persecution. Through a combination of imagination and action, a new kind of order is brought out of a chaos which itself masquerades as order.
The issue at stake in Esther 8:1–12 is authority. The king gives the Jewish queen the wealth of her chief oppressor; her cousin Mordecai is offered the king’s signet ring and Esther is given his sceptre as a sign of reversal of power. Just as in John Everett Millais’s painting we see her standing at the threshold of the king’s domain, so Esther herself may be understood as a ‘threshold’ in this narrative. Through her self-sacrificial action and her non-violent resistance within the system of royal power, she is able to question and subvert that very system. (This is true despite the fact that her apparently positive power reversal leads to further violence, for as a result of it the Jews are given license to arm and defend themselves against the unstoppable genocidal edict of the Persians; Esther 8:11.)
This juxtaposition of artworks spanning three centuries is intended to open up diverse perspectives on Esther’s performative body and its adornments.
In Millais’s Esther (1863–65), she stands in front of a curtain, the royal blue of the textile itself standing for the impending presence of King Ahasuerus beyond. She stands both centre and back-stage, preparing to meet the king and, impassioned, to request his mercy on her people. The dramatic irony is present in part because Esther stands alone, as she does in both Esther 5 and 8. Millais’s painting contrasts with Guercino’s seventeenth-century, Septuagint-inspired interpretation of Esther’s encounter with the king, where she is shown crowned and accompanied by two women, and in which the king exerts a strong physical presence. In Millias’s rendering, the lone Esther’s facial expression demonstrates her resolve to the viewer in the critical moment just prior to pulling back the curtain.
In Patricia Cronin’s 2015 installation, collections of clothing make reference to broken and lifeless bodies. They are passive objects that weave multiple narratives of exploitation and the devaluation of female life. The artist creates a composition that speaks out of these inanimate objects to animate their stories of brutality and disregard. Similarly, Esther’s limp body in Guercino’s painting suggests passionate suffering. Her body, heavy and vulnerable, laden with jewels and silk, is displayed to the king by her attendants as a sign of her whole people’s pain and yearning for justice. Cronin’s textiles do likewise, attended to and displayed by the artist to affect social change in the particular contexts of women’s suffering.
In Guercino’s painting, Esther’s eyes are closed in suffering, recalling the passage: ‘how can I endure to see the destruction of my kindred?’ (Esther 8:6). The tragedy of impending genocide is both urgent and beyond what can be managed in the senses of a single body, even a sacrificial and subversive one. Cronin’s textiles and their stories insist upon opening viewers’ eyes, as paradoxically do Esther’s closed eyes in Guercino’s painting. As she is overcome with grief, the open eyes of the viewer may respond with compassion and resolve.
In the biblical text, Esther makes her case before the king, placing herself in a sacrificial position in which she relinquishes control and breaks strong conventions in order to act as an advocate for her oppressed culture. Cronin makes her case for the girls whose lives are destroyed by violence and abuse, raising the issues of their physical absence through the presence of their clothing. In Guercino’s painting, Esther is physically present but simultaneously absent on account of her unconscious state. Eyes closed in a compassionate pleading, her ‘Passion’ before the paradoxically powerful yet limited king visually associates her resilience with the Virgin Mary’s acceptance of her role as God-bearer (as a result of which her soul too will be pierced; Luke 2:35), and with Christ himself facing death in order to gain life for humanity.