The beautiful Queen Esther is one of the most important Jewish heroines in the Old Testament. In the rich and complex Book of Esther, set during the Babylonian captivity of the Jews, the queen braves her own death in order to save the Jewish people by approaching her husband, the austere Persian King Ahasuerus. Though Ahasuerus had chosen his wife without knowing she was Jewish, and Esther had never revealed her secret, she knew that she had to acknowledge her Jewish heritage when her husband’s wicked minister, Haman, decreed that all Jews be killed. Fortunately, when she came into the king’s presence to invite him to a banquet, Ahasuerus lowered his scepter, a sign that “she found favor in his sight” (Esther 5:2). At the banquet, to which Esther also invited Haman, she revealed both her Jewish background and the minister’s evil plan (Esther 7:1–10). Because of his unwavering love for his wife, Ahasuerus ordered that Haman be killed and the decree nullified, thus preventing the annihilation of the Jews.1
Traditionally, depictions of scenes from the book of Esther showed either the dramatic encounter at Ahasuerus’s crowded court, with the king seated high on his throne and Esther obediently kneeling down in front of him (see JvS-100), or the moment at Esther’s banquet when she reveals Haman’s plan to Ahasuerus.2 In this previously unpublished representation of Esther and Ahasuerus, the Flemish artist Geldorp Gortzius abandoned all reference to the biblical narrative, and instead emphasized the tender interaction between husband and wife. Geldorp depicted Esther and Ahasuerus as bust-length figures situated close to the picture plane. With a loving expression, Ahasuerus has put his left arm around Esther’s shoulder while he offers her the golden scepter. In return, Esther looks up at her husband devotedly while she cradles his scepter with both hands. Geldorp’s intimate representation might well have been inspired by the first-century historian Flavius Josephus’s widely known Antiquities of the Jews, in which Ahasuerus “leaped from his throne, and took [Esther] in his arms, and recovered her, by embracing her, and speaking comfortably to her, . . . [telling her] not to suspect any bad consequence on account of her coming to him without being called, . . . but that she, who was a queen, as well as he a king might be entirely secure.” Significantly, Josephus goes on to say that Ahasuerus “put the scepter into her hand.”3
The couple’s richly appointed attire leaves no doubt of their regal status. Esther is dressed in a brown fur mantle with a split at the shoulder revealing a white satin gown embroidered with patterns of gold. A crown and diadem with pearls and precious stones shimmer amidst her brown curls. Strings of pearls, too, adorn her neck and wrists. Ahasuerus wears a deep red mantle over a dark green tunic trimmed with a golden collar inlaid with a ruby and pearls. His golden crown, the tips of which extend to the upper edge of the panel, is also garnished with pearls.4
Geldorp was primarily a portrait painter whose oeuvre mainly consists of single portraits, sometimes as part of a pendant pair, such as the 1610 Portrait of Jeremias Boudinois in the Rijksmuseum (fig 1).5 His rendering of the protagonists as bust-length figures in the present work is typical of his relatively few history paintings. One finds a similar composition in his two other Old Testament works, Susanna and the Elders in Budapest (fig 2) and David and Bathsheba in Cologne.6 Such portrait-like history paintings do not appear in the oeuvres of Geldorp’s teachers, Frans Francken the Elder and Frans Pourbus the Elder.7 The artist’s development of this novel compositional formula may have been rooted in his primary focus on portraiture. It may have also been related to his experience in Cologne, where he lived from 1579 until his death, and the wishes of wealthy clients who favored his portrait style.8 The affluent Cologne banker and art collector Everhard Jabach III (1567–1636), for instance, owned portraits by Geldorp of himself and his wife, as well as a Susanna and the Elders—likely the one now in Budapest (fig 2). Horst Vey has convincingly proposed that Jabach may have helped determine the composition of the latter.9
The fine line between Geldorp’s portraits and history paintings inevitably begs the question as to whether Esther and Ahasuerus was intended as a portrait historié. In the case of Esther, her idealized facial type suggests that she was not intended to fulfill this purpose. In fact, Geldorp had already used the same figure of Esther, with an almost identical expression, more than twenty years earlier for his Mary Magdalene in 1589.10 The same formula recurs in an undated painting of the Penitent Mary Magdalene in the Mauritshuis (fig 3).11 Indeed, throughout his career, this same figure type reappears in a number of single-figure paintings, ranging from Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary to the antique and mythological heroines Lucretia and Venus.12 In these renditions, Geldorp made only minor variations in the figure’s dress, hand gestures, and attributes.
Ahasuerus’s features, on the other hand, are less idealized than those of Esther, and his facial type does not appear elsewhere in Geldorp’s oeuvre. He is depicted as a man of roughly the same age as Esther, quite unlike the description of him in written and pictorial accounts. Although this could indicate that Geldorp created a portrait historié exclusively for a male patron, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which a sitter would have wanted to be portrayed as Ahasuerus without his wife serving as the model for Esther. Also, the specificity of Ahasuerus’s appearance does not necessarily link him to conventional portraits such as the one of Jeremias Boudinois (fig 1). In this respect, Ahasuerus can perhaps best be compared to Geldorp’s Four Evangelists from around 1605 in the Catharijneconvent, Utrecht, who all have strikingly different features, but who fit comfortably in the idiom of stylized renditions of historical figures.13
The unusual presence of the halo above Esther’s head raises further questions about the identification of the subject. Traditionally, Old Testament figures are not depicted with haloes because they are, after all, not saints.14 Indeed, Geldorp did not include haloes when he portrayed the Old Testament heroines Bathsheba and Susanna, nor in his paintings of Lucretia and Venus. The only New Testament scene that features a queen and a king holding a scepter is that of Christ Crowning the Virgin, but in such an instance Christ also would be portrayed with a halo. Esther’s halo in the present picture might be connected to the typological tradition of her intercession with Ahasuerus; her efforts to save the Jews were likened to the Virgin’s intercession with God for the salvation of mankind. In the Biblia Pauperum, one of the most well-known medieval typological sources, for example, this association is illustrated by the juxtaposition of Esther and Ahasuerus with the Coronation of the Virgin.15 Reinforcing this relationship may have appealed to Geldorp’s predominantly Catholic clientele in Cologne, resulting in this exceptional portrayal of the Old Testament heroine.