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The Purim Narrative At The Pardo Palace

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Jerónimo Cabrera, Esther crowned Queen, Queen’s Room, Pardo.

This interpretation gets complicated, though, when one considers that despite Memuchan’s recommendation to Ahaseurus that he replace the disobedient Vashti with “her peer who is more worthy than she,” Ahaseurus effectively launches a beauty pageant to choose his next queen. Esther may have been worthy because of her obedience, but the thrust of the story is not one of obedience, but of physical beauty. Indeed, the megillah goes out of its way to use both the terms “yifat to’ar” and “tovat mar’eh” to describe Esther’s beauty, perhaps hinting at both external and internal beauty.

Ahaseurus, hedonist that he is, seems primarily concerned with superficialities throughout the narrative rather than obedience. Though Mordechai saves the king’s life, his heroic act doesn’t help save his people from Haman; Esther’s appearance, which “finds favor in his eyes,” does. This chronological development escapes Krain’s interpretation; Ahaseurus can hardly embrace Esther for her loyalty to her people when her loyalty is only displayed long after he has fallen for her.

It seems that Cabrera may have intended to collapse the narrative in some places, however, as the bearded figure, who places the crown on Esther’s head, looks quite similar to the figure of Mordechai, who is later paraded on the king’s horse. Of course, the figure could just be a bearded man, but particularly within the larger Purim narrative—which is all about reality being turned upside down, and real and metaphorical masks—it’s interesting to consider Mordechai surfacing in other nontraditional roles.

In the end, though, one of the most unique aspects of the stories of both Esther and Joseph is their political power within a secular world. Solomon, David, and Saul are more traditional models for royalty, but they were identified more with religious mandates than the comparatively more boring aspects of bureaucracy and administrative duties.

Jerónimo Cabrera, Mordecai Riding in Triumph, Queen’s Room, Pardo.

Perhaps Philip III and Margaret of Austria chose the biblical tales of Joseph and Esther to depart from the usual role models for kings and queens. Krain is correct to point out that there are a lot of historical and political traditions at play in the background of the series on Joseph and Esther, but it is instructive to consider the opposite possibility, that Philip III and Margaret of Austria were revolutionaries and iconoclasts rather than simply students of history. In that light, the biblical stories depicted in the Pardo Palace might be considered not only as stand-ins for New Testament tales, but as stories that are particularly relevant as Old Testament tales. Food for thought this Purim.

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blog.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.


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