Purim: Queen Esther has inspired artists through the ages

Queen Esther is depicted as the epitome of feminine modesty, courage and self-sacrifice.

Queen Esther's real name was Hadassah but when she became Queen, she was called Esther: the Persian name for Venus. (photo credit: PIXABAY)
Queen Esther's real name was Hadassah but when she became Queen, she was called Esther: the Persian name for Venus.
(photo credit: PIXABAY)
Of all the biblical heroines, Queen Esther has always been the most popular as a subject for writers, artists and musicians. She is depicted as a woman of great beauty, but – more important – as the epitome of feminine modesty, courage and self-sacrifice.
On the 14th of Adar, corresponding this year to February 26, again we will read Megilat Esther, the Scroll of Esther, and hear how she was able, with the help of Mordechai, to outwit the evil Haman, who had plotted the extermination of the Jews. Her real name was Hadassah but when she became queen, replacing the disobedient Vashti, she was called Esther, which was the Persian name for Venus.
In Midrash Rabbah, we learn more about this beautiful virgin who was chosen by King Ahasuerus from all the contestants to be his bride. She was reputed to be a descendant of King Saul. Her father, an exile at Susa, died soon after her conception, and her mother died when she was born. She became the ward of her cousin Mordechai (often misrepresented as her uncle), who brought her up as his daughter.
She was described as one of the four most beautiful women in the world – of ideal height, more lovely than either Median or Persian women (Esther Rabbah 6-9). Before he chose Esther, King Ahasuerus would compare the women who entered his chamber with a statue of Vashti that stood near his bed. Afterward, he replaced it with a statue of Esther (Midrash Abba Guryon). When Haman’s evil decree was revoked, Esther asked the sages to perpetuate her name by reading the Book of Esther and by instituting a yearly feast.
Esther has been the inspiration of many great dramatic works throughout the ages, and not only for Jews. In the 16th century, an Italian verse mystery was called La Representatione de la Reiner Hester; in 1530 a German, Hans Sachs, commemorated her with a literary work Esther. There were many French dramas, beginning with the Huguenot playwright Antoine de Montchretien’s three tragedies in verse called Esther (1585); Vashti (1589) and Aman (1601). Racine wrote his epic in 1689. J. Herz was the author of a Yiddish play featuring Esther in 1827. Austrian dramatist Franz Grillparzer depicted her as his heroine in 1848; American Frank Bliss in 1881. Subsequently, works were also written by Andre Dumas, John Masefield, James Bridie and Yiddish poet Itzik Manger, whose work was adapted for the stage in Israel in 1965.
Artists were equally drawn to Esther as a model, and her likeness was found in a third-century synagogue at Dura-Europos, as well as in a ninth century mural in the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome. Queen Esther was the inspiration of many famous Renaissance artists, such as Botticelli, Filippino Lipi, Mantegna, Tintoretto and Paulo Veronese.
Nor was she neglected in music. In the 14th century, two musical works were written in her honor. One was for three voices. The other, for five voices by Palestrina in 1575, was in the form of a dialogue between Esther and Ahasuerus. Stradella wrote an oratorio in 1670; Handel in the 18th century; and there were operatic variants by Peri and later by Giovanni Pacini in the 19th century. More recently, an opera called Esther was performed in 1956 with music by Jan Meyerowitz and a text by Langston Hughes.
This beautiful and noble woman has been an inspiration to creative minds throughout the centuries, but nowhere is she better immortalized than in her own Scroll of Esther, which we read every Purim.
It brings us to the realization of her courage that, at the risk of her own life, saved the Jewish people of Persia from extermination.

The writer is the author of 14 books. Her latest novel is
Searching for Sarah. dwaysman@gmail.com