An examination of the artwork produced through the centuries on the scroll of Esther reveals a number of scenes from the narrative that have drawn most interest:
- The opening banquet scenes and the fall of Vashti
- The “toilet” of Esther
- The fainting of Esther
- Ahasuerus and his scepter
- The triumph of Mordecai
- The fall of Haman at Esther’s 2nd banquet
- The hanging of Haman and his sons
The Story of Purim in Dura Europos
When we turn back to the earliest extant artistic treatment of Esther, that of the third century synagogue of Dura Europos, we find, strangely enough, that only one of these typical scenes is used, while two other scenes appear whose subjects are not immediately apparent.
The Purim Panel, Synagogue of Dura Europos
On the left side of the panel is the oft-portrayed scene of Mordecai’s triumph. He sits astride a horse wearing royal robes and a crown. Leading the horse, Haman wears the costume of a defeated athletic contestant, in accordance with Persian iconography.
Four onlookers, at the center of the panel, raise their right hands in acclamation. Unlike all the other figures in this panel, they are dressed in Hellenistic style, provoking discussion regarding their identity. We suggest that this distinctive clothing identifies the onlookers as the Jews of Roman Dura, who have put themselves into the story of Purim. Dura Europos was on the limes of the Roman Empire with the Parthian/Sassanian Empire, so that the Jews of Dura naturally identified in particular with this biblical story that took place so close by. As in other cases, the Durene Jews expressed their personal involvement with biblical stories by putting themselves and their leaders in the midst of the biblical action. Here too they acclaim Mordecai’s triumph.
Regarding the throne scene at the right, we have found no parallel in artistic treatments of the Scroll of Esther.
Various suggestions have been made regarding which scene from Esther is being illustrated. Kraeling cites and rejects the following: Esther 3: 8-15, Haman’s order of persecution; Esther 6: 1 – 3, Ahasuerus hearing of Mordecai’s discovery of the plot; the rescinding of the order of persecution; and Esther 9:20f., the inauguration of Purim. Kraeling adopts this last suggestion, but claims that it is based on the Targum to Esther 9:1-2 , in which rather than asking for an additional day of revenge, Esther asks for authorization to announce a new holiday, i.e. Purim.
Kraeling further identifies the messenger, standing below Ahasuerus, as Mordecai, based on the royal arm band worn by this figure. But in our opinion, the messenger is too diminutive to be such a central character in the story.
Kraeling’s suggestion has the advantage of directly and immediately linking the picture to the actual celebration of Purim in this community on the border of the Persian empire. Even the placement of the mural next to the Torah shrine indicates how important this narrative was to the people of Dura, who saw themselves in these historical events.
This placement is, we think, the key to understanding the Purim panel; it should be analyzed not only by itself but also in the context of its horizontal register and the register`s components. As we find regarding the subject of the Ark, such contextual study leads us to new understanding of the individual panels. It has been noted that the throne scene of the Purim panel bears similarities to the throne scene in the Infant Moses panel in the same register. We suggest that the parallels are even more extensive.
Pharaoh`s decree and the saving of Moses,
Synagogue of Dura Europos
As Pharaoh decreed the persecution of the Israelites, so Ahasuerus gives the order to kill the Jews. As Moses is saved from imminent drowning and becomes Pharaoh’s “grandson” and heir presumptive, so Mordecai becomes the “viceroy”, wearing the king’s own clothing. Thus the two panels complement each other, both showing the movement from danger to victory: the Jews are threatened by a royal decree, but the Jewish hero is miraculously saved and elevated.
According to this interpretation, the figures in the throne scene are: Ahasuerus and Esther, each flanked by a servant; Haman, holding the royal insignia, to the kings right and the royal messenger, receiving the order of persecution. The hands of the king, Haman and the messenger form a triangle around the menacing document.
In fact, the two halves of the register are replete with symmetries. We observe three matching pairs of subject matter:
Paintings to the left of the Torah niche
Elijah and Elijah and The Story of Purim
the prophets of Baal the widow's child
Paintings to the right of the Torah niche
Moses in the ark Ezekiel's and Ezekiel and
the Dry Bones the heretics
- The salvation of the Jews of Persia/The salvation of Moses;
- Elijah’s resurrection of the child/Ezekiel’s resurrection of the Dry Bones;
- Elijah killing the heretics/ Ezekiel’s killing of the heretics.
What seems to be unpaired is the panel of David’s anointing by Samuel. However, this panel may be seen as paired with the Holy Ark itself, through the identification of the Torah shrine with the Ark of the Covenant, brought to Jerusalem by David.
Thus, the whole register deals with the place of prophets - Moses, Ezekiel, Samuel, Elijah and Mordecai (!) – as the mediators of Jewish survival.
From the above description of the Dura mural, it turns out that the people of Dura read Megillat Esther in a way that was very different from the reading of other artists and groups, both Jews and Christians, in all of the subsequent periods. Esther is not the major figure in Dura; she is literally a marginal figure. In order to see these differences in the understanding of the story of Esther, we will now look at paintings of some of its most widely treated scenes.
The opening banquet scenes and the fall of Vashti
Antecedent to the main narrative is the downfall of the first queen, Vashti. This event is set in the opening scenes of state and public banquets. These events are frequently illustrated, especially in the context of the Speculum Humanae Salvationis, a medieval Christian multi-media “midrash” that links texts from the Old and New Testaments, and paraphrases and amplifies them pictorially. The banquet scenes in Esther represent archetypes of lavish worldly conduct. In some of the treatments, only men appear; in others, the queen too is present, seated together with the king or separately with her ladies. It seems that the variations depend on local custom.
Vashti’s fall is portrayed most ghoulishly in the Alba Bible, where she becomes less than human, with a tail and a horn, produced by an angel, according to Bab. Tal. Megillah 12b. and other sources, including the two aggadic Aramaic Targums.
Ahasuerus` Feast, The Alba Bible
The picture seems to have men and women feasting together in the same place, the men’s table balanced by the women’s table. But the presence of the naked and deformed Vashti together with the clothed and regal Vashti (above, left) clearly indicates that three scenes, which took place at different times and places, have been combined into a single plain. On the right is the king’s banquet with the males; on the left is the queen’s banquet. According to Esther 1:10, Ahasuerus summoned Vashti to his men’s club, ordering her to appear wearing her crown.
In punishment for midrashically imagined acts of cruelty, she was struck with a variety of deformities and appears in the Alba Bible in this deformed and naked state.
Jewish tradition in general sees Vashti as a negative figure, casting her as the daughter of one of the last Babylonian kings – those responsible for the destruction of Solomon’s temple. Therefore, while the scroll of Esther itself leaves her departure unclear, midrash often executes her, thus ending the line of the Babylonian kings. Some modern readers and artists, however, have seen her differently. For example, she appears to be a heroic figure in Dore’s illustration, central and dignified.
In Ginzberg’s retelling of the midrashim in Legends of the Jews appears an enigmatic and unsubstantiated note that Vashti had given birth a week before being summoned by Ahasuerus. In any event, in Marc Chagall’s painting, Vashti is exiled by Ahasuerus, who stands imperiously before his throne .
Is Vashti holding a nursing infant? If so, the line of Vashti will not be wiped out.
Up to now, Vashti seems to be a marginal figure. In contemporary art, as well, Murray Bloom’s Vashti as the Venus de Milo is antique, passive and empty and based on the negative reading of Midrash. Her bruised breast reflects the tradition of punishment. A unique departure from this marginal role is seen in the work of Siona Benjamin, whose art talks about her own search for a home. She chooses biblical women who are almost unknown: Adah, Mahalat, Asnat, etc. Her most intriguing figure is Vashti, who is beautiful, distorted, tragic and angelic. Crouching and twisted, she peers into the battered sanctuary of Jewish history, depicted in black and white like an old postcard. She is an outsider as is Siona Benjamin, who merges foreign ethnic images that make sense in a Jewish context.
The fainting of Esther and Ahasuerus and his scepter
The next scene that artists love appears in two laconic verses from Esther 5, in which Esther anxiously enters the king’s presence uninvited, in order to thwart Haman’s plot to kill the Jews:
For the first time, we turn to scenes of interaction between Ahasuerus and Esther. The critical encounter, widely treated by artists, sees Esther in a faint, overcome by the possible consequences of her action. This fainting scene is totally absent in the Hebrew text of the Book of Esther, but appears in the Septuagint and in Esther Rabba.
Tintoretto’s painting takes the biblical scene, expanded by the Septuagint and the Midrash and captures the drama, through the whirl of figures around Esther.
The arms of three ladies in waiting extend to support the queen, as a large group of courtiers look on in curiosity, surprise and concern. Ahasuerus is off-balance in his haste to reach his beloved queen. Behind the king and above him, ominously dark, stands Haman. A diagonal line carries the eye from Haman, to Ahasuerus, to Esther.
Poussin’s treatment of the same moment freezes in a tableau of emotional distance; only Ahasuerus’ red cloak evokes any excitement.
In contrast, by viewing the scene from behind Ahasuerus, James Tissot invites us into the throne room, as participants in the event, witnesses to Esther’s faint and the king’s urgent response.
Other artists deal with the catharsis in this same scene, based this time on the Masoretic biblical text. While the scepter is already present in some of the fainting scenes, it stars in the flood of artistic treatments of the king’s benevolent reception of Esther. Midrashically, the scepter achieves ithyphallic prowess. The scepter is variously extended to Esther, laid upon her shoulder, touched cautiously/kissed gently by the queen.
As we have seen, the Purim painting of Dura Europos does not relate to these popular scenes. It does however include another scene, which took place in the very same location. The Durene painter had a different agenda and was not interested in trivia.
The triumph of Mordecai
Mordecai’s triumphal parade in Susa is without doubt the most widely treated scene from the scroll of Esther in visual art. This would seem to derive from it being a particularly significant point in the entire story. However, when reconsidered, this personal triumph has no real significance for the drama of the threatened extermination of the Jews. It is Mordecai’s reward for warning the king of the plot against his life, but it does not undermine Haman’s plan. Mordecai’s triumph scene takes place between Esther’s first and her second banquet for Ahasuerus and Haman. It seems like a mere distraction and a detour. We the readers are waiting for Esther to do something to stop Haman’s plan – the story of Mordecai’s triumph heightens our anxiety and increases suspense.
There is certainly an element of irony in this scene. Haman’s plan is about to go into high gear; he comes to the palace after having been honored by the queen with a private dinner with the royal couple. He is about to ask the king’s permission to hang Mordecai. Instead, he is relegated to the position of a stable boy whose job is to publicly laud his arch-rival. We, the readers, thoroughly enjoy his discomfiture.
The real turning point of the scroll of Esther is the second banquet, when Esther reveals that Haman is plotting to kill the Jews and herself. But this scene lacks visual interest; it’s just another of the many banquets, with people sitting around, holding a cocktail. Perhaps, as a result, artists have highlighted the preceding scene.
The triumphal scene begins the process of Haman’s fall and Mordecai’s rise, both of which the reader/viewer enjoys watching in slow motion. Parades are for the public enjoyment. Mordecai is now in the position of viceroy and Haman is his groom. Next, Haman’s wife will say explicitly that Haman is in trouble – if you (the reader) didn’t get it, she did.
Midrash goes even further by creating the figure of Haman’s daughter. In this scene, she throws the contents of a chamber pot onto the head of her own father, mistaking him for Mordecai. When she discovers her mistake, mortified she kills herself. This Midrash is illustrated, not surprisingly, in the Leipzig Mahzor, originating as it does in the threatened Jewish community of southern Germany in the 13th century. The design of the painting leads the eye from Haman’s daughter atop the tower, to the streaming contents of the chamber pot (which manages to avoid Mordecai) landing full-face on Haman. This momentum leads us further to the body of Haman’s now dead daughter. The irony that Mordecai is wearing both a crown and his Jews’ hat is not lost on us. Although king for the day, he is still a Jew; such an amazing but fragile occurrence echoed deeply in the consciousness of the Jews of medieval Germany.
Leipzig Mahzor, ca. 1320
Rembrandt takes another tack. He, like the Durene artist and some others, accompanies Mordecai’s triumphal parade with crowd-lined streets.
Mordecai, Haman and the horse are central and highly illuminated through the wide archway. They are frozen momentarily, while the crowd seethes with excitement. But Mordecai is lost in thought about the future of the threatened Jews. He is physically present, but his mind is elsewhere.
The etching is noticeably divided between a darker left side and a lighter right side. The left side appears more “finished” than the right side, in which most of the figures are rudimentary. Although we might think that this division simply means that the piece is unfinished, it was, in fact, printed; its production is complete. Therefore, the unfinished look is a statement by Rembrandt on the event – it is a turning point, rather than an end point.
Early 20th century folk artist, Moshe Shah Mizrahi, includes the scene of Mordecai’s triumph in his Purim shpiel. Haman, dressed as a Turkish janissary tooting on a boru trumpet, leads Mordecai’s steed. Mordecai gestures stiffly from upon the horse, which, like himself is crowned. On the arch above them and on the floating sign in the center, the inscriptions surprisingly are taken from a later chapter of the Megillah (chapter 8), in which the final triumph of Mordecai and the Jews is narrated. Thus, Mizrahi has transformed the tension-ridden turning point of the drama into the jovial happy ending. Finally, Mordecai and Haman are labeled with phrases not from Megillat Esther at all, but from Hasidic tracts to which Mizrahi, the Persian Jew, was exposed after he came to Jerusalem.
In Murray Bloom’s version of the triumphal scene, we see a diminutive Haman, a copy of an ancient Persian relief, walking forlornly in front of the huge carousel horse. Mordecai is an abstract figure, composed of flowing colors and geometrical patterns, between which we see the straps of the head and arm tefillin. In the upper left corner, there is a window, below which is a stain – symbolic remnants of the story of Haman’s tragic-comic daughter. Bloom’s interpretation of the scene is, in sum, purely iconic.
Finally, Aryeh Navon creates a cute chimera, composed of Mordecai, Esther, Ahasuerus, Haman and the horse. He has placed the figures thoughtfully to reflect their functions in the story: Haman deposed, Mordecai and Esther elevated, Ahasuerus wide-eyed and clueless. It’s almost a logo for Purim.
The hanging of Haman and his sons
Already in the Byzantine period, the scroll of Esther became a flashpoint between Jews and Christians; by the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther went so far as to suggest that this book be removed from the Protestant canon. Jewish-Christian animosity focused particularly around the “hanging” of Haman.
It is noteworthy, therefore, that in Jewish art, the hanging of Haman and his sons is one of the most commonly depicted scenes. In Christian art too, Haman’s execution is portrayed; however here hanging becomes crucifixion. Technically, this may simply derive from the fact that in the Septuagint (the Jewish Greek translation of the Bible), the word for hanging is translated here (uncharacteristically) as crucifixion. Lest one conjecture that this translation was introduced by Christian editors of the Septuagint, one should note that the Aramaic Targumim also regularly translate תלה (hang) as צלב (crucify).
Therefore, it seems that some Jewish traditions understood Haman’s hanging as a crucifixion. It seems likely that in this way, the archvillian Haman was conflated with Jesus. as a covert venting of Jewish anger against Christianity’s oppressive treatment of the Jews. One indication of this internecine tension is found in an edict from the Theodosian Code, dated 408 CE:
The governors of the provinces shall prohibit the Jews from setting
fire to Haman in memory of his past punishment, in a certain
ceremony of their festival, and from burning with sacrilegious intent
a form made to resemble the sacred cross in contempt of the
Christian faith, lest they mingle the sign of our faith with their jests;
they should restrain their rites from ridiculing the Christian law; they
will certainly lose what has been permitted to them up till now unless
they refrain from unlawful actions. 
Whether or not Jews intended to mock Jesus and the cross, the edict indicates that this was the Christian perception.
This is the background to the several instances in Christian art of Haman’s hanging portrayed as a crucifixion. The intent seems to be to portray the cruelty of the Jews; as they crucified Jesus, so they crucified Haman. However, Haman is not made into a “type” or prefiguration of Jesus; on the contrary, he is understood by most Christian exegetes as the type of the anti-Christ. Therefore, even when portrayed on a cross, Haman is not in the same position as Jesus, and is not nailed to the cross.
Nonetheless, the use of the cross regarding Haman evokes associations with the supposed Jewish cruelty toward Jesus.
Of our collection of Haman crucified, Michelangelo’s pendentive (a triangular cameo linking the arched ceiling to the walls) in the Sistine Chapel is best known.
Here, the action begins at the right with Ahasuerus in his bed, attended by scribes who are reading to him the account of Mordecai’s saving of the king (Esther 6:1f.). Ahasuerus gestures, ordering Haman (standing in the door) to dress Mordecai (seated below him) for the triumphal parade. On the left, Esther accuses Haman of plotting to kill the Jews (Esther 7:6). Finally, at center stage is the climax: Haman is crucified. In all three parts Haman is identified by his yellow robe.
Leipzig Mahzor, 1320
The design of the tree on which Haman and his sons are hanged in the Leipzig Mahzor (and other medieval Hebrew illuminations) is derived from two Christian visual models: the Jesse tree, a visual genealogy connecting Jesse’s son, David, with Jesus and the Tree of Life.
It is part of an intricate put-down of Christianity/Jesus, based, once again, on the translation of hanging as crucifixion and the interpretation of the tree as a cross. Further, in the Leipzig Mahzor, Haman’s daughter lies dead at the foot of the tree. She is a parody of the engendering figure (either Jesse or Mary) who is normally the root of the Christian tree. Thus, Jewish artists have adopted Christian iconography for the purpose of negating Christian continuity.
Back to Dura Europos
Having journeyed through the centuries of Jewish and Christian art on the story of Purim, we now return to our point of origin, the Purim panel from Dura Europos.
As we have pointed out, the hanging scenes are missing, as are scenes fraught with personal or national tension. The painting is not polemical and not accusatory, but celebratory – we were threatened, we survived. Since neither Christianity nor any other recognizable group was seen by the Jews of Dura as threatening, the painting does not reflect local angst, but rather feelings of joy regarding an historical event. As a result, Purim is a time of festivity and joy, not of settling scores, as it becomes for both Jews and Christians later on.
 C.H. Kraeling, The Synagogue, (New York: Ktav, 1979), 162.
 Kraeling,. 171
 Chapman, David W. Ancient Jewish and Christian Perceptions of Crucifixion (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008)
 See Kogman-Appel, K. “The Tree of Death and the Tree of Life: The Hanging of Haman in Medieval Jewish Manuscript Painting,” Between the Picture and the Word (Princeton: Princeton University/Penn State Press, 2005).
Targum Rishon Esther 9
12. Then the king said to Queen Esther: In the fortress of Susa, the Jews killed and destroyed five hundred men, and the ten sons of Haman; re¬maining in all the provinces of the king; what have they done? What is (now) your request and it will be granted to you, and what is your plea even now, and it will be done. 13. Said Esther: If it pleases the king, let permission be granted to¬morrow as well to the Jews who are in Susa to make holiday and rejoicing, as it is fitting to do on the day of our miracle, and let Haman`s ten sons be hanged on the gallows! 14. Whereupon the king ordered this to be done, and sentence of judg¬ment was given in Susa, and the ten sons of Haman were impaled.