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Esther: the story of a queen

A study examines the attitude towards Queen Esther in art, religion, literature and plays in the 16th-15th century in Italy

Queen Esther at the city gate. Painting by Sandro Botticelli
Queen Esther at the city gate. Painting by Sandro Botticelli

Queen Esther is a biblical character, the heroine of the Book of Esther. According to the traditional story of the Book of Esther, the Persian king Ahasuerus deposed his rebellious queen Vashti and decided to find a wife in her place. A young Jewish girl named Esther took grace before him and became the new queen. Mordechai the Jew's aunt got into a fight with the king's minister, Haman, who in response planned to take revenge on Mordechai and kill all the Jews in the kingdom. Haman's plan was discovered and thanks to the efforts of Esther who pleaded with the king, Haman was hanged and the other enemies of the Jews were also punished. Mordecai the Jew became the king's minister, and Purim was established as a celebration marking the victory of the Jews over their enemies in Persia.

Although Esther was a character from the Bible, her image was also spread in Italian tradition and art during the Renaissance (around the 14th century to the 17th century), in sources such as poems, sermons, manuscripts, plays and paintings.

What is the question? Why was Queen Esther so popular in Christian culture during the Renaissance?

"How is it possible that Queen Esther, a central figure in Judaism, gained so much popularity in early modern Italian Christian culture? Why her? For example, she was mentioned in the writings of the three great writers Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, appeared in sermons (including those that dealt with the Virgin Mary) and was painted by leading artists such as Botticelli, Filippino Lippi, Veronese, and Tintoretto," asks Prof. Nirit Ben-Aria Debi, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben Gurion University, who researches the relationship between religion and art, especially during the Renaissance in Italy.

In her latest research, which was awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation, Prof. Ben-Aryeh Debi decided to examine the attitude towards Queen Esther in Christian culture (art, literature, plays and religion) in the 16th-15th century in Italy, and especially in Florence. This was following a lecture she was asked to prepare about Esther in art, and after being exposed to the scope of the material on the subject. It is about visual material (such as wall paintings from churches and museums) and textual material (such as sermons, legends, religious plays and manuscripts from the Renaissance period that she collected from archives in Italy and the Internet). Andrea del Castano, Esther, 1450, Uffizi, Florence

This is how she discovered that the meaning of the figure of Esther changes each time according to a certain context - in paintings and texts. "For example, the clergy, the preachers, treated Esther as a role model for young women - a pious, modest and obedient bride - and asked them to behave like her. This is to cultivate traditional values, encourage virtues and guide women towards fulfilling their accepted role as wife and mother. In addition, the clergy claimed that Esther is an early incarnation of the Holy Mary, and like her, she is also a virgin, innocent, modest, protects her people and mediates between them and God. This is also how the artists painted Esther in the churches as Mary (for example at her coronation, dressed in red and blue) and gave her a Christian meaning", explains Prof. Ben-Aryeh Debi.

The researcher also discovered that the artists and playwrights dealt a lot with Esther's appearance and emphasized her beauty. "Esther was a beautiful woman and the artists in Florence and Venice highlighted this in her face, clothes and jewelry. The playwrights also wrote directing notes that similarly dealt with her appearance. That is, her image in paintings and plays represented a prosperous court culture, wealth and splendor.

"In addition, Esther was depicted as a Christian, possessing the Western-Italian beauty ideal of the 16th-15th century (light hair, deep eyes, with a swan's neck and high forehead) and this despite the fact that she was an Eastern Jew (Persian). On the other hand, the figures around her (such as Ahasuerus and the courtiers) were drawn and described as having oriental clothing (with robes and turbans for example) to illustrate the exotic east (in the XNUMXth century Esther returned to her eastern roots with the rise of orientalism and the new taste that favored the exotic). The sermons also ignored Esther's Jewishness. For example, they presented her as a heroic Gaelic Christian figure who saved her people, without mentioning that she was Jewish," explains Prof. Ben-Aryeh Debi.

The research illustrates the centrality of Esther in the Christian-Italian culture during the Renaissance period, and later the researcher intends to compile all the material she collected into a book about her character.

The religious plays, on the other hand, also emphasized Esther's Jewishness. According to the researcher, "Christian playwrights had an interest in presenting Esther and the Jews in a positive light; This is because the Medici family - a dynasty of Italian merchants who also served as patrons of the religious plays at that time - desired the economic power of the Jews. From this it is possible to understand why the world of the Christian theater showed much more tolerance towards the Jewish people than the world of religion and art."

The research illustrates the centrality of Esther in the Christian-Italian culture during the Renaissance period, and later the researcher intends to compile all the material she collected into a book about her character. "Esther has a dramatic, juicy and exciting story, so it is not surprising that it attracted artists, clergymen, writers and playwrights and was sometimes adapted to the Christian tradition. Various interpretations have been given to her, but by and large she was portrayed as a complex figure - heroic, humble, beautiful and exotic - and not just a Jewish queen from the Book of Esther", concludes Prof. Ben-Aria Debi.

Life itself:

Shot by Ben-Aryeh Debi

Prof. Nirit Ben-Aryeh Debi, married + three (27, 21, 17), lives in Mevsaret Zion. In her free time she likes to travel in nature and go to the beach.