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.
8 On that day King Ahasu-eʹrus gave to Queen Esther the house of Haman, the enemy of the Jews. And Morʹdecai came before the king, for Esther had told what he was to her; 2and the king took off his signet ring, which he had taken from Haman, and gave it to Morʹdecai. And Esther set Morʹdecai over the house of Haman.
3 Then Esther spoke again to the king; she fell at his feet and besought him with tears to avert the evil design of Haman the Agʹagite and the plot which he had devised against the Jews. 4And the king held out the golden scepter to Esther, 5and Esther rose and stood before the king. And she said, “If it please the king, and if I have found favor in his sight, and if the thing seem right before the king, and I be pleasing in his eyes, let an order be written to revoke the letters devised by Haman the Agʹagite, the son of Hammedaʹtha, which he wrote to destroy the Jews who are in all the provinces of the king. 6For how can I endure to see the calamity that is coming to my people? Or how can I endure to see the destruction of my kindred?” 7Then King Ahasu-eʹrus said to Queen Esther and to Morʹdecai the Jew, “Behold, I have given Esther the house of Haman, and they have hanged him on the gallows, because he would lay hands on the Jews. 8And you may write as you please with regard to the Jews, in the name of the king, and seal it with the king’s ring; for an edict written in the name of the king and sealed with the king’s ring cannot be revoked.”
9 The king’s secretaries were summoned at that time, in the third month, which is the month of Sivan, on the twenty-third day; and an edict was written according to all that Morʹdecai commanded concerning the Jews to the satraps and the governors and the princes of the provinces from India to Ethiopia, a hundred and twenty-seven provinces, to every province in its own script and to every people in its own language, and also to the Jews in their script and their language. 10The writing was in the name of King Ahasu-eʹrus and sealed with the king’s ring, and letters were sent by mounted couriers riding on swift horses that were used in the king’s service, bred from the royal stud. 11By these the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to gather and defend their lives, to destroy, to slay, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods, 12upon one day throughout all the provinces of King Ahasu-eʹrus, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar. 13A copy of what was written was to be issued as a decree in every province, and by proclamation to all peoples, and the Jews were to be ready on that day to avenge themselves upon their enemies. 14So the couriers, mounted on their swift horses that were used in the king’s service, rode out in haste, urged by the king’s command; and the decree was issued in Susa the capital.
15 Then Morʹdecai went out from the presence of the king in royal robes of blue and white, with a great golden crown and a mantle of fine linen and purple, while the city of Susa shouted and rejoiced. 16The Jews had light and gladness and joy and honor. 17And in every province and in every city, wherever the king’s command and his edict came, there was gladness and joy among the Jews, a feast and a holiday. And many from the peoples of the country declared themselves Jews, for the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them.