Commentary by Hovak Najarian
The principal participants in Dutch artist Jan Victors’ The Banquet of Esther and Ahasuerus are:
Ahasuerus (seated on the right): King of a vast Persian Empire that extended from India to Ethiopia and included people of many nationalities.
Esther (standing): A beautiful young Jewish woman who was chosen to be Ahasuerus’ queen after his former queen, Vashti, defied him. Esther did not reveal she was Jewish until the dinner that is illustrated in Victors’ painting.
Haman (seated at the left): An official who was promoted by King Ahasuerus to be above all other princes. People were to bow to him.
Not in the painting but an important part of the story is:
Mordecai: The nephew of Esther’s father. When Esther’s parents both died, Mordecai adopted Esther and raised her as his own child.
When Esther was chosen to be queen, Mordecai remained protective of her and stayed near the gates of the palace to be aware of what was taking place. He would not bow or grovel at the sight of the egotistical and self-important Haman. This angered Haman to the extent that he devised a plan to hang Mordecai and to kill all other Jews in the kingdom as well. King Ahasuerus was not aware of Haman’s plan but Mordecai learned about it and sent word to Esther. In response, Esther set up her own plan. She organized a banquet at which Haman would be seated with Ahasuerus. The king loved Esther and offered earlier to grant anything she requested even half his kingdom.
In Victors’ painting, Esther has just revealed that she is Jewish and told Ahasuerus about Haman’s plan. She requested that her people be saved. The surprised king raised his scepter in anger. He arranged immediately to have Haman hanged along with his ten sons on the same gallows that was built to hang Mordecai. Further, a decree was given to allow Jews to kill anyone who would rise up against them. Today, the holiday Purim continues to commemorate the deliverance of the Jewish people from Haman’s plot.
In lighting, clothing, and biblical subject matter, Jan Victors’ painting is influenced by Rembrandt’s style. Victors name is listed among Rembrandt’s pupils but the word “pupil” is often used loosely so this is not a certainty. Among Dutch artists of the seventeenth century, the imagery found in the Book of Esther was a favorite source of subject matter and a version of “Esther’s Banquet” also was painted by Rembrandt.
King Ahasuerus is believed to have been King Xerxes. Susa, where Ahasuerus’ palace was located, is in western Iran, about 150 miles east of the Tigris River. It is known today as the city of Shush (Shoosh).
The decision to include the Book of Esther in the Bible has been a source of debate. Martin Luther, who disagreed with the inclusion of several books, including Esther, took an extreme position and stated: “I am such an enemy to the book of Esther that I wish it did not exist…”
© 2012 Hovak Najarian