Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Queen Esther

Edwin Long
Queen Esther 1878
oil on canvas, 213.5 x 170.3

We are not short of royal portraits at the NGV, but Esther is, of the four queens in the collection, the one I find most appealing. Cleopatra, Victoria and Elizabeth Tudor are all Queens Regnant and strong, supremely confident women, but Esther is unsure and vulnerable.

She looks apprehensive as her maids prepare her for a visit to her husband, King Xerxes, or Ahasuerus as he is called in the Bible. Her air of vulnerability is heightened by her Bambi eyes and nervously clasped hands. Her apprehension is not without reason, considering what happened to her predecessor, Queen Vashti.

The former Princess Vashti was the daughter of Belshazzar, the last King of Babylon: he at whose banquet the doom-prophesying graffiti miraculously appeared on the wall. Those of our members who are au fait with the Bible will recall the occasion. Rembrandt's dramatic painting of the moment is in the National Gallery in London.

As prophesied, the Medes and the Persians under King Darius duly invaded Babylon, murdered Belshazzar and looted his palace. Darius spared the young Princess Vashti and gave her to his son Ahasuerus in marriage. In due course Ahasuerus succeeded his father as King and Vashti became Queen of a vast empire that stretched from India to Ethiopia.

In the third year of his reign, Ahasuerus gave a feast for a thousand of his nobles and vassal princes. The festivities, meant to show off his power and riches, lasted for seven days. On the seventh day, it seemed to Ahasuerus like a good idea to show off his beautiful wife as well, so he summoned Vashti to appear before the carousing revellers, wearing the Royal crown. Opinions differ on whether she was ordered to wear anything else at all.

Clothed or not, Vashti was quite rightly appalled at the thought of making a degrading spectacle of herself in front of a drunken crowd, and flatly refused. Such disobedience to the King was unheard of, not least because it might give other women the idea that they, too, could disobey their husbands. Lord Memucan, one of the King's ministers, gave it as his opinion that "this deed of the queen shall come abroad unto all women, so that they shall despise their husbands."

The upshot was that Vashti had to go. Whether she was executed or merely exiled, we are not told. I like to think that she met a Sensitive New Age Guy, remarried and lived happily ever after.

This unfortunate episode left Ahasuerus without a queen. How to choose a new one? Clearly, a beauty pageant had to be held. Aspiring damsels arrived from every corner of the realm. Among them was the lovely Jewess Esther who was encouraged by her Uncle Mordecai, a member of the Palace staff, to enter the competition.

The elimination rounds went on for nearly a year. When the dust finally settled, it was Esther who got the sash and tiara. The new queen's relationship to Uncle Mordecai, however, was kept a secret.

Esther was enjoying life at the palace, until Mordecai had to throw a spanner in the works by refusing to kowtow to Haman, the King's Vizier. Haman liked folks to kneel down as he went by, but Mordecai refused on the grounds that he, as a Jew, bent the knee only to his God.

Haman took the strongest exception to this act of defiance. He didn't see why the Jewish God selfishly had to demand all the knee-bending for Himself – there were plenty of other gods who didn't mind if their worshippers paid due respect to the secular authorities as well. Haman, like Hitler after him, hit upon a simple solution to the Jewish Problem: eliminate the lot of them. He had an extra-high scaffold built on which, as the opening move, he was going to hang Mordecai.

When Mordecai got wind of the scheme, he muttered to himself: "It's not what you know, it's who you know…" and off he went to see his royal niece and ask her to intercede with her husband. Unfortunately, nobody, not even the queen, was permitted to approach the King without being summoned, on pain of death.

Time was of the essence: Haman's carpenters were flat out getting the scaffold finished and his armed thugs were fizzing at the bung to start the massacre. If Esther was to save her people, she couldn't afford to wait for an invitation to the Royal presence. She called for her handmaidens to bring her most fetching ensemble, applied a judicious amount of kohl to emphasize the Bambi look, resolutely suppressed her apprehension and entered the Royal Presence.

Initially, Ahasuerus was outraged. Another wife who thinks she can do as she likes! He glared at Esther who promptly managed to swoon gracefully, revealing a bit of decolletage as she did so. The King was so struck by her delicate beauty that he forgot his annoyance, embraced her and granted her plea to forbid the genocide.

Happy endings all round, except for Haman who was hanged on the custom-built gallows originally meant for Mordecai.

Esther was a popular subject for painters – there are paintings of her by Michelangelo, Tintoretto, Rubens, Caravaggio, Artemisia Gentileschi, Rembrandt, Poussin, Millais and Dali, to name but a few. For the most part, they choose to depict her in the act of swooning before the King – these works are collectively known as The Fainting Paintings.

There is a very interesting website at , where they have galleries of paintings depicting various Biblical women. You can see any number of the Fainting Paintings there, in glorious technicolor.

Edwin Long depicts Esther being dressed for her audience with the King, as did Rembrandt, (although Rembrandt couldn't resist doing a Fainting Painting as well!) Theodore Chasseriau painted 'La Toilette d'Esther' (1841) but unlike Long's and Rembrandt's, his Esther looks more like a brazen hussy than a nervous supplicant.

In 1878, Alfred Taddy Thomson was the NGV's adviser in London. He saw "Queen Esther" in progress at Long's studio, but it was not for sale, so Thomson commissioned a similar picture for the NGV. Long started a second version and painted them in tandem.

Long was at pains to point out that the NGV version is not a copy, but a second original. He said that the proportions of the two works differed and that he used different models for the attendants, although the same model posed for Esther in both cases. But, he added, her facial expression is not the same. I have to take his word for it, because I was unable to find a reproduction of the first version, which was exhibited at the RA in 1879 and is now a part of the Pérez Simón collection.

Long was very fussy about getting the historical details correct. In the days when the English owned the earth, they took most of its best bits to London and put them in the British Museum. There Long copied wall carvings from Nineveh and inscriptions from Babylonian cuneiform tablets.

His research included The Book of Esther in the Bible, where the interior of the palace is described in detail.

I looked it up.

Esther 1: 6 goes: The garden had hangings of white and blue linen, fastened with cords of white linen and purple material to silver rings on marble pillars. There were couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl and other costly stones.

The following year, Long painted a pendant to "Queen Esther" – it is called "Vashti Refuses the King's Summons" and the two pictures were exhibited together at Burlington House, although for some reason they were not hung side by side.

To complement the archaeological accuracy of the paintings, Long designed the identical elaborate gold frames for both of them himself. He used the motifs from the bases of columns that graced a temple in the ancient Persian city of Persepolis. Conveniently, he did not have to travel to Persepolis to view them: he could just take the number 26 bus to Russell Square where the British Museum is.

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