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.