The book of Esther is one of the most vivid and suspenseful stories in the Bible. Its theatrical palace scenery and dramatic plot twists provide fruitful fodder for the mind’s eye and the artist’s canvas.
All three of these artworks explore possibilities particular to the visual medium, and all were made in the seventeenth century, yet they reflect the perspectives of different religions, genders, nationalities, and cultural contexts.
When looking at the elaborate staging, construction of place, and varied cast of Jan Steen’s rendition, it is unsurprising to learn that his painting style was heavily influenced by Dutch theatrical conventions of his day. Meanwhile, art historians connect Artemisia Gentileschi’s frequent portrayals of strong biblical women to her own trauma: she endured both rape and a gruelling and highly publicized trial against her assailant (Straussman-Pflanzer 2013). While her several paintings of Judith decapitating Holofernes seem to exemplify this strength in obvious ways, her Esther is differently formidable, using feigned weakness as a tool of rhetorical power in the place of physical force. Finally, the Ferrara scroll seems to connect Esther’s diasporic struggles to the Jewish community of its own day.
The three artists gathered here even draw from different texts of the book of Esther. The Megillah’s Jewish artist works from the Hebrew Masoretic text, which tells this scene in a brief two verses. The Esthers of Steen and of Artemisia, both Roman Catholic, reflect the heroine of the Latin Vulgate—a version that incorporates the earlier Greek Septuagint’s expansion of this scene into sixteen dramatic verses, elaborating on Esther’s royal garments, her inner fear, and her dramatic faint into the arms of her two maidservants. This lengthier telling of the scene, which may also derive from Josephus (Antiquities 11.6.9), is a favourite source for Early Modern European Christian paintings of Esther (Kahr 1966: 107–24), and is dubbed Addition D by modern scholars.
These different texts of Esther, corresponding to two different religious traditions, partially explain why Steen’s and Artemisia’s compositions differ from the Megillah’s. Although both the Septuagint and Josephus were originally Jewish creations, rabbinic Jewish tradition moved away from them and built its own extensive midrashic traditions around Esther—though some of the Greek additions did find their way back into Jewish tradition through the medieval Jewish chronicle Sefer Yosippon (Tabory 2012: 441–64). Esther’s faint and her maidservants who catch her do not appear in any ancient targum or midrash on Esther, and only appear in a few Jewish artistic renditions of Esther (Budzioch 2017: 420).
In short, these three works of art suggest the many different factors that have an impact on biblical readers, from gender, to culture, to variations in texts and translations. Yet in all three, the artist has fleshed out the story, adding the background cast, the scenery, and the psychological explanations that the Hebrew text of Esther leaves out.
As we reread the text after viewing the art, we can better see how the biblical narrator focuses our attention on the scene, and what that narrator chooses to tell and what not to tell. By viewing these visual renditions side by side, we can better discern the text’s omitted details and psychological ambiguities, from which the artists’ creativity begins. And in these narrative details—such as the presence of hostile or friendly courtiers, the possibility that Esther merely pretended to be helpless, or the suggestion that Ahasuerus was young and naive—we see new moral dimensions of the story, and new theological questions for those who believe that God is behind its improbable plot.
Budzioch, Dagmara. 2017. ‘Midrashic Tales in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Illustrated Esther Scrolls’, Kwartalnik Historii Żydów [Jewish History Quarterly] 263.3: 405–22
Kahr, Madlyn. 1966. ‘The Book of Esther in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art’ (PhD diss., New York University)
Straussman-Pflanzer, Eve. 2013. Violence & Virtue: Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago)
Tabory, Joseph. 2012. ‘Yefet in the House of Shem: The Influence of the Septuagint Translation of the Scroll of Esther on Rabbinic Literature’, in Shoshannat Yaakov: Jewish and Iranian Studies in Honor of Yaakov Elman, ed. by Shai Secunda and Steven Fine, BRLJ 35 (Leiden: Brill, 2012), pp. 441–64
5 On the third day Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, opposite the king’s hall. The king was sitting on his royal throne inside the palace opposite the entrance to the palace; 2and when the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, she found favor in his sight and he held out to Esther the golden scepter that was in his hand. Then Esther approached and touched the top of the scepter. 3And the king said to her, “What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be given you, even to the half of my kingdom.” 4And Esther said, “If it please the king, let the king and Haman come this day to a dinner that I have prepared for the king.” 5Then said the king, “Bring Haman quickly, that we may do as Esther desires.” So the king and Haman came to the dinner that Esther had prepared. 6And as they were drinking wine, the king said to Esther, “What is your petition? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.” 7But Esther said, “My petition and my request is: 8If I have found favor in the sight of the king, and if it please the king to grant my petition and fulfil my request, let the king and Haman come tomorrow to the dinner which I will prepare for them, and tomorrow I will do as the king has said.”