During the Babylonian captivity of the Jews, the beautiful Jewish orphan Esther, heroine of the Old Testament Book of Esther, won the heart of the austere Persian king Ahasuerus and became his wife (Esther 2:17). Esther had been raised by her cousin Mordecai, who made Esther swear that she would keep her Jewish identity a secret from her husband. However, when Ahasuerus appointed as his minister the anti-Semite Haman, who issued a decree to kill all Jews, Mordecai begged Esther to reveal her Jewish heritage to Ahasuerus and plead for the lives of her people. Esther agreed, saying to Mordecai: “I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16).
Esther’s dramatic words were not exaggerated. Not only was it risky to confess her long-kept secret, but anyone who approached the king without being summoned also risked the death penalty unless Ahasuerus extended his golden scepter as a sign of benevolence (Esther 4:11). Fortunately, Ahasuerus adored his wife and lowered his scepter upon seeing her. While touching the tip of the scepter, Esther invited Ahasuerus and Haman to a banquet. During this banquet, Esther disclosed her Jewish identity and told Ahasuerus of Haman’s plan to kill her people. The enraged Ahasuerus had Haman executed and appointed Mordecai as his minister instead. The brave Esther thus prevented the annihilation of the Jews.
Jan van Staveren has situated the scene in a grand hall with red and grey marble columns and multiple arches receding into the background. Seated in an elaborate golden throne decorated with lush ornamental curls and impressive lion-shaped armrests, the powerful king towers above the disproportionately small figure of the queen.1 Wearing a turban adorned with feathers and a jeweled ornament consisting of a ruby and three pearls, Ahasuerus is clad in a fur-trimmed, red velvet robe with gold-brocade patterns identical to those of the cushion beneath his golden slippers. Esther, who gracefully bows her head as she touches the tip of the scepter, is lavishly attired in “her royal robes” (Esther 5:1). Her silver satin dress is trimmed with gold brocade and adorned with precious stones, and her crown is decorated with feathers and an ornament identical to that in her husband’s turban. Nevertheless, by portraying Esther in a light-colored dress separating her from the crimson, brown, and golden hues surrounding her, and by placing her alone in the center of the composition, Van Staveren poignantly emphasizes her fragile circumstances in this courtly drama.
Signed “Johannes Staveren” on the cartouche held by the sculpted angel on Ahasuerus’s armrest, Van Staveren probably executed this work, which is one of his most ambitious paintings, in the first half of the 1640s.2 The composition strongly relates to his Circumcision of Christ, dated 1640 (fig 1).3 Both paintings are executed in a similar palette and depict a grand, lofty space with arches and ornamental pillars. In each instance three separate groups, two on the main floor and one in an elevated marble courtyard in the background, witness the main scene in the foreground. A similar background with a multi-arched edifice also appears in Van Staveren’s Hermit at Prayer in a Grotto with Classical Ruins, dated 1641 (fig 2), and in his Praying Hermit, dated to the mid-1640s (fig 3).4 The face of the hermit in this latter work is similar to the old man standing directly behind Ahasuerus’s scepter, suggesting that Van Staveren worked with the same model or prototype in this period of his career.
Several elements of the composition are reminiscent of Gerrit Dou’s (1613–75) work of the 1640s, suggesting that Van Staveren adopted them from his fellow townsman and possible teacher.5 The prominent, dark blue parasol in the background of Van Staveren’s painting, no doubt a reference to the exotic setting of the story, appears in Dou’s work from the mid-1630s until well into the 1650s.6 The reliefs of dancing, naked putti surrounding the bottoms of the grey marble columns in the background of Esther before Ahasuerus also feature in several works by Dou, such as his 1646 portrait of Johan Wittert van der Aa in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.7
An important visual source for Van Staveren’s interpretation of this biblical narrative was undoubtedly a 1564 engraving of Esther before Ahasuerus by Maarten van Heemskerck (1498–1574) (fig 4). In Van Heemskerck’s composition, the scene is set in a similar grand space with arches and columns in the background, and shows Esther kneeling obediently on the steps of Ahasuerus’s high throne.8 It is also possible that Van Staveren drew inspiration from the theater. Indeed, the red velvet curtain hanging from the top and sides of the painting, as well as the rhetorical gestures and expressive glances of the onlookers, suggest that we are watching a theatrical scene.9 There were several Dutch plays devoted to the story of Esther that Van Staveren could have known, for instance Jacob van Zevecote’s 1621 play Esther, or Nicolaes Fonteyn’s 1638 play Esther, ofte ’t beeldt der ghehoorsaamheid (Esther, or the Picture of Obedience).10
Two figures on the left of Ahasuerus’s throne, the seated, somewhat stern-looking man in a blue-feathered turban and the stodgy man in a fur bonnet holding a letter, look as though they might represent specific characters in the story. It is possible that they depict, respectively, Mordecai, who incited Haman’s rage by refusing to stand up in his presence, and Haman. Although Mordecai does not appear in court and Haman is not present during the meeting between Esther and Ahasuerus in the Book of Esther, it is likely that Van Staveren combined various elements of the story or referenced a play in which the playwright had taken certain liberties.11 For instance, in Joannes Serwouter’s 1659 play, Hester, oft verlossing der Jooden (Esther, or the Deliverance of the Jews), Haman is present during the encounter between Esther and Ahasuerus.12 It is also possible that the man holding the letter is Ahasuerus’s chamberlain Thares, a character from the theater that does not feature in the Book of Esther. In Serwouter’s description of this scene, and possibly in earlier plays as well, Thares hides a letter containing a plot to kill the king under his garments. When Ahasuerus finds out about the letter he orders Haman to read it out loud. If this figure in Van Staveren’s painting depicts Thares, Haman could be the seated man in the blue-feathered turban.13
The large number of Dutch plays devoted to the story of Esther stems from the parallels the Dutch saw between Esther’s triumph over Haman, which saved her people from the threat of extinction, and their own victory over Spain.14 This connection would undoubtedly have appealed to the first owner of Van Staveren’s painting.