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’ (LXX 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