Esther before Ahasuerus by Jan Steen

Jan Steen

Esther before Ahasuerus, Late 1660s, Oil on panel, 106 x 83.5 cm, The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg; Entered the Hermitage between 1763 and 1773; formerly in the collection of Catherine the Great, ГЭ-878, classicpaintings / Alamy Stock Photo

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A Theatrical Crowd Scene

Commentary by

Although the book of Esther revolves around Haman, Ahasuerus, Mordecai, and Esther, the plot is moved along at several crucial points by the actions and words of palace courtiers, named and unnamed.

The Hebrew text mentions no background characters in this episode. The Greek Septuagint version, however, mentions Esther’s and Ahasuerus’s servants jumping to Esther’s aid as she faints before the king while approaching him to invite him to her banquet (Additions to Esther 15:7). She is risking everything to save the lives of her people from genocide for she knows full well that:

if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law; all alike are to be put to death, except the one to whom the king holds out the golden scepter. (4:11)

Jan Steen’s theatrical Esther before Ahasuerus builds on the text’s slender details to create an entire court’s worth of responses. Though many people’s eyes will be led first to the illuminated figures of Esther and her maidens, this group takes up relatively little of the panel. Around her, the attentive viewer can quickly discern a great many figures rendered in darker hues, displaying a variety of reactions. In the foreground, for example, a royal scribe writes the king’s annals, so crucial later in the Esther story, while his companion looks directly at us and points to Esther (Cahill 2017: 30).

The range of reactions among the characters in this crowded composition seems to demand us to consider our own response. It poses the question: where and who are you in this story? Do you gaze in wide-eyed wonder at Esther’s bravery—or in mockery at her supposed weakness? Are you uninterested in the queen’s plight, and if so—by extension—do you fail to notice the persecuted seeking help in your own day and age; the world’s tragedies on the street and the news?

Like many Dutch painters of his day, Steen drew heavily from theatre—especially its focus on moments of reversal such as this, as the all-powerful king comes under Esther’s influence (Cahill 2017). At first glance, Steen seems to downplay Esther’s pivotal moment of winning the king’s sympathy in favour of the varied activity of a large court. But on closer inspection, he magnifies the scene through the range of courtiers’ responses, and thus he draws his viewers in.



Cahill, Nina. 2017. ‘Staging the Old Testament: Jan Steen and the Theatre’, in Pride and Persecution: Jan Steen’s Old Testament Scenes, by Robert Wenley, Nina Cahill, and Rosalie Van Gulick (Birmingham: Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham), pp. 20–33

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