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
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.