Thursday, April 11, 2013

Esther Denouncing Haman, by Ernest Normand (1888)

Here is another scene that looks for all the world like a widescreen 1950s Biblical epic, courtesy of artist Ernest Normand (1857 - 1923).  

Whatever Normand’s lapses of taste, his sense of the dramatic is undeniable.  Many of his pictures are staged as if they were elaborate tableaux constructed for the ornate theatrical experiences of the time.  (Stage production in the Victorian era was of an order so lavish as to put even the most contemporary Broadway extravaganza to shame.)

This dramatic scene illustrates a moment in the Old Testament.  Esther, wife of King Ahasuerus, King of Persia, is pointing accusingly at Haman, a treacherous friend of the King. King Ahasuerus is sitting in the shadows behind Esther.

Haman is the main antagonist in the Book of Esther, who, according to Old Testament tradition, was a 5th Century BC noble and vizier of the Persian Empire under King Ahasuerus.  In the story, Haman and his wife Zeresh instigate a plot to kill all of the Jews of ancient Persia by persuading Ahasuerus to provide an executive order to do so.  Included in the edict would be the killing of Mordecai and all the Jews of the lands he ruled. The plot was foiled by Queen Esther, the king's recent wife, who is herself a Jew. Haman would be hanged from the gallows that had originally been built to hang Mordechai.

The reason for all of this bloodshed was, as is often the case, wounded pride.  Mordecahi would not bow before Haman at a state function.  According to myth, Esther makes her case against Haman to King Ahasuerus personally.  The King asks Esther, "Who is he? Where is the man who has dared to do such a thing?" Esther replies, "The adversary and enemy is this vile Haman."

Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs attending the king, says, "A gallows 50 feet high stands by Haman's house. He had it made for Mordecai." And the king replies, "Hang him on it!"  The dead bodies of his ten sons Parshandatha, Dalphon, Aspatha, Poratha, Adalia, Aridatha, Parmashta, Arisai, Aridai and Vaizatha (or Vajezatha), are also hanged there after they die in battle trying to kill the Jews.

As is often the case when researching religious myths, I’m delighted to be alive in the more secular 21st Century…

Normand showed this picture at the Royal Academy, London in 1888; and its intensity is marked.  Esther stands stage right, kneeling before her husband the king while her body twists to point an accusing finger a Haman.  Note the drapery of her robes as they fall upon the stairs, and the detailing of her sleeves as they droop about her arms. 

Equally impressive is the cowering figure of Haman.  He regards his accuser from beneath beetle brows, hands up as if warding off an attack.  I find the gold highlights of his robe particularly impressive, but they are nothing compared to the loving detail Normand puts into Haman’s chair.  Feathers in the onyx sphinx armrests reflect the light, and the matching golden paws that make the chair and table legs are inventive touches.

As befits a king, Ahasuerus sits above the fray in his robes of red and gold.  (In an appreciated and witty touch, Normand also depicts the king as statue to the right and left of the door.)  At the king’s feet is Harbona, watching Esther make her accusation.  You can almost see the wheels turning in the eunuch’s head; any moment now he will speak.

If a contemporary film adaptation of the story were to include the histrionics depicted here, it would be hooted off of the screen.  However, as a pictorial spectacle, Normand does manage to milk the drama to considerable effect.  Normand was, by no stretch of the imagination, a tasteful painter, but he did have dramatic flair.

More Normand tomorrow!

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