This weekend is Purim, the raucous celebration of the deliverance of the Jews from Persian slaughter in Biblical times. The story begins with King Ahasuerus reasserting male dominion over women throughout his vast kingdom, and in his own palace, by issuing a decree and by banishing his recalcitrant queen, Vashti.
The heroine of the tale is Esther, his new queen who hides her Jewish identity. When her people are threatened with genocide, she bravely intervenes. This entails approaching the king unbidden, an act that could cost her life.
The rest you should read for yourself because it's a well constructed short story until the last two chapters where there are textual problems: contradictions, repetitions, and a shift from a celebratory tone ("The Jews had light, and gladness, and joy, and honor") to a vindictive one ("...the other Jews...slew of their foes seventy and five thousand...").
The painting is by another heroine, Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656?). She was one of the first woman painters to achieve fame and acceptance in her own time. However, she suffered rape and torture along the way, and was generally deprived of the more lucrative commissions despite her acknowledged skill. Artemisia is a great favorite of feminist art critics, not least because of her many depictions of strong women in conflict with men.
I like this painting because Artemisia has internalized the story. While it is true that Esther makes herself beautiful before approaching the king, it's also true that she fasts for three days beforehand. In Artemisia's interpretation, Esther does not just prostrate herself before the king, but swoons, no doubt from hunger and fear. Her attendants support her tenderly, bound to their queen in sisterhood.
The king is shown as young and handsome. His sympathy is aroused, not his lust. He rises from his throne. Artemisia omits the golden sceptre that he extended for Esther to touch. He is not a frightening figure; she might even love this man. Esther's fear is for her people, rather than for her own life.
Feminist, but still romantic.
Ester e Assuero by Artemisia Gentileschi; ca. 1621-1630. Click on the picture for a closer look.