Esther before Ahasuerus

Artemisia Gentileschi, Esther before Ahasuerus, c. 1628–1635. Metropolitan Museum of Art online collection.

In my recent series on irony and satire in the book of Esther I pointed out that the Persian king Ahasuerus (pronounced Ahashverosh in Hebrew) is ridiculed in the story while Esther and her cousin Mordecai manage to persuade (manipulate?) him in order to save the Jews in the Persian empire from a planned genocide.

In an unrelated post Stephanie wrote about the Italian female artist Artemisia Gentileschi and how many of her paintings portray strong women taking control and dominating a man. Stephanie’s post made me think about a painting by Gentileschi of Esther Before Ahasuerus. One version of Esther falling before Ahasuerus is in the Hebrew Bible which says Esther “fell at his feet, weeping and pleading with him to avert the evil design of Haman the Agagite and the plot that he had devised against the Jews” (8:3). However, in another scene which appears in an addition to the story in the Greek versions of Esther, the writer describes Esther fainting before Ahasuerus:

Lifting his face, flushed with splendour, he [Ahasuerus] looked at her in fierce anger. The queen [Esther] faltered, and turned pale and faint, and collapsed on the head of the maid who went in front of her.  8 Then God changed the spirit of the king to gentleness, and in alarm he sprang from his throne and took her in his arms until she came to herself. He comforted her with soothing words …

Esther 15:7

The scene in Gentileschi’s painting is from this addition to Esther, and she would have been familiar with it because the additional material in Esther is part of the Deutero-canonical books in the Catholic Bible (also called the Apocrypha).

If you take a careful look at Gentileschi’s painting you will see two rather striking things. First, in Esther’s fainting pose her neck is exposed as her head falls back, and she is portrayed with a rather muscular, almost masculine, neck. In fact, I think I detect an Adam’s apple! Second, by contrast with this ‘masculine’ Esther, Ahasuerus is portrayed as a ‘dandy’. It seems to me that Gentileschi knew the story well and had picked up that Ahasuerus is exposed as weak and easily manipulated, while Esther manipulates and therefore dominates him. The artist reveals in a masterful way that she understood what was really going on in the story.

Thanks again to Stephanie, the family art historian, for helping me to see more in Renaissance art than simply pretty pictures!

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