Antonio Palma: Esther Before Ahasuerus
Italian, c. 1510-1575
SN85, oil on canvas, 1574

Docent to docent presentation 2008

As a subject for painting, Esther before Ahasuerus is especially conducive to the translation from textual to pictorial form. (Jonathan Unglaub, Poussin's Esther before Ahasuerus). The primary source for the story of Esther is the scroll or book of the Old Testament.

The Hebrew Bible locates the book of Esther in the Writings as one of the Five Scrolls. The canonical tradition of the Christian Old Testament places it after Nehemiah, which makes it the last book in the collection of historical materials. This placement functions to assign a history-telling role to the book, as opposed to its storytelling role in the Hebrew Bible.

The book of Esther is a late book, written after the reign of Ahasuerus (Xerxes I). The consensus is that it was written in the fourth or third century B.C.E. It had some trouble finding acceptance into the Bible, because of its lack of reference to God. It has the distinction of being the only book of the Hebrew Bible not found among the Dead Sea Scrolls in any fragments. The old Greek Version of the Hebrew Bible, known as the Septuagint seems to have found it lacking and it was lengthened considerably by introducing prayers and petitions of Esther and Mordecai (the main characters) that refer explicitly to God.

The canvas depicts Queen Esther's audience with King Ahaseurus, an episode drawn in part, from the Old Testament, Book of Esther. Esther (named for the goddess, Ishtar), was a Persian Jew who was orphaned at a young age. The Israelites had been exiled to Babylonia in 586 B.C.E. and still remained there. Esther's cousin, Mordecai, was older than she and he raised Esther.

Ahaseurus had recently disposed of his wife, Queen Vashti. She had displeased the King by refusing to strip down for his guests. Ahaseurus needed a new wife and he called upon all the virgins in Persia to present themselves at the palace.

Esther was extremely beautiful and Ahaseurus chose her to be his Queen. Esther moved away from her Jewish community and into the palace. Mordecai advised her not to admit to her Jewish heritage because he was unsure of the king's sentiments towards the Jews.

While at the gate of the palace, Mordecai discovered a plot by two servants to kill the king. He told Esther about the plot, and she in turn informed the king. The servants were executed and Mordecai's services were recorded in the books. Shortly thereafter, Haman, a favorite of the king noticed that Mordecai refused to bow down to him and in retribution, he convinced the king to sign an order for a general massacre of the Jews on one day. Following a Persian custom, Haman determined by lot (pur. pl. Purim) that the massacre should take place 12 months later. A royal decree was sent throughout the
Kingdom of Persia. Mordecai informed Esther of this and begged her to intervene and use her influence with the king to avert the decree of death. At first she feared to enter the presence of the king without being summoned, for to do so was a capital offence. Mordecai argued that she would not be spared just because she lived in the king's palace. He convinced her that her entire family would perish and suggested that perhaps she had been chosen to be Queen so that she could save the Jewish people.

Meanwhile, the King had learned that it was Mordecai who had uncovered the plot to kill him. He asked Haman how he should reward the man who had saved his life and Haman thinking the king was referring to him, suggested he give the man riches and beautiful clothes. The king then had these gifts bestowed on Mordecai.

Despite her fears, the Queen courageously agreed to help her people, and after three days, arranged a feast and put on her royal robes and entered the king's chamber. The Bible describes Ahaseurus's reaction: when he saw Esther standing in the court, he was pleased and he held out to Queen Esther the royal scepter. She approached the king and he asked her what was her request and said: "It shall be given to you, even to half of my kingdom." Esther informed the Queen of the Haman's plot to destroy the Jewish people (to which she belonged) and pleaded that they should be spared. The king ordered that Haman should be hung on the scaffold he had prepared for Mordecai and the Jewish people were spared. He and his sons were executed on the 14th day of Adar, the day Haman had set aside to slaughter the Jews.

The fathers of the Church considered Esther as a type of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The book of Esther found a place in the Christian canon of the Old Testament. A great many of the early fathers considered the book inspired. While the Jewish community sees it as a festival of freedom. The story affirms the importance of a single women in the history of Israel. The holiday today is called "Purim" and is usually celebrated by people dressing in costume and sounding noisemakers when Haman's name is read. It is a festival that represents hope to oppressed people, no matter how desperate the circumstances. It also tells a tale of Jews using political connections and skill to survive. The custom of masquerading on Purim was first introduced by Italian Jews about the close of the 15th century under the influence of the Roman carnival.

This painting, like the Medici Madonna, by Pagni, is a political document. The following historical background will lend credence to this statement.

Historical Background:
Venice's relationship with France in 1574 was of prime importance. Venice had become estranged from Spain and the Empire. It was in July, 1574 that 23 year old Henry III of France visited Venice. (Henry's mother was Catherine de Medici and he was to be the last of the Valois kings). He had been crowned King of Poland after his older brother Charles IX had died. The Venetian's decided to give Henry a reception he would long remember, since they needed his protection in case of war. Sixty Senators greeted him as he glided into Venice by a fleet of gilded gondolas escorting him to Murano.

He was then rowed to the Lido with the Doge and passed under a triumphal arch designed by Palladio and painted by Veronese and Tintoretto. During the next week he was kept entertained by continuing banquets, jewels, dances etc. He visited Titian (97 years old) and posed for Tintoretto. He even enjoyed the favors of Venice's most sought after courtesan, Veronica Franco – he was given miniatures of the famous courtesans in order to make his selection.

During the festivities, the Doge discussed political matters with him and expressed the desire of Venice to have Henry restrain King Phillip of Spain from attacking Venice. (Philip did not trust the Venetians, who in 1573, signed a treaty with the Sultan in order to protect the league and Venice. ) Venice needed military aid from France. But Henry was non-committal although he later said he never forgot Venice and his visit. The following year the plague struck Venice and devastated the population.

It was during this important historical visit that Palma executed this painting. A political document based on the allegory of Esther requesting intervention by Ahaseurus to save the Jewish people, and in this painting Esther is the personification of Venice asking Henry of France for his help against the Spanish King Phillip.

It is also a tale where success can be won if one has the power and wits to master the situation. It is a story of conflict in which officials battle for position and power.

Antonio Palma was the nephew of Palma Vecchio. He was apprenticed to Bonifazo de Pitati whose niece he married (c.1545). He may have assisted Bonifazio in the decoration of the Palazzo dei Camerienghi, Venice and a sacristy in Venice. A signed Pieta, a banner and one other signed work establish the basis for authenticating a small number of stylistically similar works under his name. The painting , Esther before Ahasuerus has been identified in the style of Bonifazo. Palma's son became a leading painter in Venice in the 17th century.

In Palma's painting, Esther wears under her crown the Doge's cap of the Venetian magistrate. Ahaseurus, is the personification of France and wears a crown adorned with the fleur-de-lis. His features resemble Henry III. The date 1574 commemorates the year of Henry's visit. The coat of arms for the Contarini Family is shown to indicate the donor of the painting. The coat of arms is important. It has been described as a special coat of arms that belonged to the branch that included the Doge Domenico Contarini. This coat of arms is represented at a later date as the coat of arms of the Contarini and therefore, there is some discussion the coat of arms may have been painted in at a later date.

The first and fourth quarter shows three lilies on field of blue, that is the French royal arms. The second and third quarters show the Contarini — they may have had royal permission to add the arms to the family's. They overlap the coat of arms and may be the initials of two donors of the painting. It is important to note that members of the Contarini family were active in receiving the King in 1574. At the end of his visit, the King stayed in the villa of Frederigo Contanini .

The Latin inscription reads: One sees Esther at the time when she bows before His majesty the King. Both Esther and Venice are petitioning the King to help against their enemy.

Esther is united with the King and for the Venetians and the Church, the Virgin is symbolically joined with Christ.

The medium is oil on canvas. Venetian paintings are generally restless and often filled with action. They are opulent and revel in perspective as is evident in this painting. We can see patterns of marble, which diminishes in size and leads us to the courtyard. The figures are seen from a central, frontal position and there is a direct line from Esther's eyes to the king. The king looks benevolent and anxious to please Esther . Note that the king and his followers form a triangle, a technique used often in Venetian art.

Esther and her ladies are wearing elegant gowns (there is some allusion in the literature that Esther is actually a portrait of the courtesan, Henry III chose as his amor.) Palma uses color and shading to guide our eye — in addition the King is on a raised platform, which moves our gaze upwards.

ARTIST: Negretti, Antonio (called Antonio Palma)

Encyclopedia Judaica; The Scroll of Esther, Jerusalem, 1972, Vol. 6, pp. 906-915; Vol. 7, p. 1222; Vol. 14 pp] 047-58

Catholic Encyclopedia, Book of Esther, New York, 1909, Appleton & Co., Vol. V

New Catholic Encyclopedia, Book of Esther, McGraw Hill, NY, 1967, Vol.6 pp.279-81, Vol.5 pp.556-7.

Grabar, Andre, Christian Iconography, A Study of It's Origins, Bollinger Series 35, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ 1968, pp. 21-29

Grove – Art on Line, Oxford University Press, 2007

Hall, James, Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art, London, John Murray 1974; p.116

Perlove, Shelley, Guercino's Esther Before Ahasuerus, Artibus et Historiae, 1989, pp. 133-145

Reading the Old Testament (on-line), Chapter 16; Five Scrolls, Esther.

Telushkin, Joseph; Biblical Literacy, William Morrow and Co., NY, 1977

Tomeroy, Peter, Catalogue of Paintings Before 1800, Sarasota , Fl. The John and Cable Jingling Museum, 1976, p. 198.

Unglaub, Jonathan, Poussin's Esther Before Ahasuerus, Art Bulletin Vol.85 #1, March 2003