Esther by John Everett Millais

John Everett Millais

Esther, 1863–65, Oil on canvas, 77.4 x 106 cm, Private Collection, Painters / Alamy Stock Photo

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A Turncoat

Individual Commentary
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 ch.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.

References

Barton, John, and John Muddiman. 2012. The Oxford Bible Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Rosenfeld, Jason, and Alison Smith. 2007. Millais (London: Tate)