web analytics
September 22, 2014 / 27 Elul, 5774
At a Glance
Sections
Sponsored Post
Meir Panim with Soldiers 5774 Roundup: Year of Relief and Service for Israel’s Needy

Meir Panim implements programs that serve Israel’s neediest populations with respect and dignity. Meir Panim also coordinated care packages for families in the South during the Gaza War.



Home » Sections » Arts »

Siona Benjamin’s Megillas Esther

Siona Benjamin’s Megillas Esther
Hebrew Union Collage Museum
One West 4th Street, NY 10012; 212 824 2205
Mon.- Thurs. 9am – 5pm; Friday, 9am – 3pm. 
Free Admission (Photo ID required)

 

 

There is nothing funny about Siona Benjamin’s Megillas Esther (2010).  Unlike some contemporary illuminated megillas that emphasize the absurd and outlandish nature of the corrupt Persian court and the buffoonish character of the king, Benjamin takes the Book of Esther quite seriously.  She is obviously deeply sensitive to the terrible consequences of God’s hester panim (hidden face) in our own time.


Benjamin, a well-known Bene Israel artist originally from Mumbai, India, presents us with a singular perspective on the Esther story.  Set in the visual context of traditional Indian/Mughal miniatures and infused with imagery from her extensive artwork on Jewish themes, this megillah casts the narrative into a potent brew of exoticism and violence.

Her illuminated scroll is eleven and a half inches by fifteen feet long, created over a year and a half in gouache (opaque watercolor) on a parchment prepared in Israel. She worked closely with both her anonymous patron and teacher Rabbi Burton Visotzky (JTS) to develop a megillah that was informed as much by traditional commentaries, her own Jewish/Indian background and contemporary experience. 


Benjamin’s images start innocently enough with a scene of the King enthroned amidst his royal court. One immediately notices the piled-up style typical of Indian miniatures, depicting the turbaned court sages and satraps, including a red-cloaked Haman, all toasting a dancing girl and her drummer.  Her exotic pose evokes a flying angel, alerting us that this is no ordinary banquet and alluding to the unfolding narrative of Vashti’s shocking rebellion   A cameo of Queen Vashti is seen below.


The artist intersperses seven full miniatures between three columns of text each, framed by a solid decorated border above and three rectangular panels of decoration and narrative images below. Additionally she has symbolic images (a brush, a sword, birds, flowers, etc.) flowing between the textual columns as a decorative visual commentary. The effect is hypnotic, calming turquoise borders punctuated by vivid greens and russet earth colors of the illuminations create a vibrant frame for the megillah text written by an Israeli scribe.


The intrusion of threatening long sabers, beautiful exotic birds, peacocks, elephants, deer, gazelles and lions along the top decorative border creates a subliminal counter text that becomes more strident, finally with fire-breathing dragons and prancing camels toward the narrative’s conclusion.  It is as if the natural world with all its mysteries is observing and commenting upon the deeply human story of Esther and her struggles to save the Jewish people.

 


Esther Presented to King Ahasuerus; gouache on parchment by Siona Benjamin
Courtesy the artist

 


Esther Presented to King Ahasuerus is a richly oriental scene crowded with no less than 14 figures. Nonetheless, all is not secure as we see among the crowd and musicians the mysterious eunuch Harbonah and the evil Haman, characterized by a handlebar mustache straight out of classic Bollywood thrillers.


Not surprisingly, Esther dominates the large miniature panels, establishing the narrative primacy of her role.  The seven full panels illustrate: Ahasuerus’s Banquet, Esther Presented to the King, Esther’s First Banquet, Esther’s Confrontation with Haman, the Triumph of Mordechai, Hanging Haman’s Sons and finally the Triumph of the Jews directed by Esther and Mordechai.   What is most singular about the artist’s depiction of Queen Esther is that she is blue.  This is Benjamin’s signature symbol of a unique individual, set off from mankind, alone in piety and determination, and almost goddess-like in her attributes.

 


Esther’s First Banquet; gouache on parchment by Siona Benjamin
Courtesy the artist

 


The fourth panel of Esther’s First Banquet is one of the most stunning images in this megillah, fully evoking its sumptuous Persian miniature forbearers.  The King and Haman are seated alongside a fragrant lotus pond being served by a celestial Queen Esther.  She is wearing a beautiful elaborate costume, elegant blues embroidered with silver and gold.  In contrast to the seated King and Haman, she practically floats into the scene. Vashti even makes a surreptitious appearance under an arch in the building behind them.  In the artist’s vision, Vashti, even though removed from power, hovers in the background watching the drama unfold.

 

 


Esther’s Confrontation with Haman; gouache on parchment by Siona Benjamin
Courtesy the artist

 


Esther’s Confrontation with Haman is a hallucinogenic vision of armed horsemen attacking a swirling Queen Esther as the wicked Haman crouches in the corner, his curved knife ready to slaughter any Jews he can find.  The vivid crimsons and oranges vibrate against the blue Esther and the pale ghostly riders to create a Hitchcock-inspired nightmare.

 


Hanging of Haman’s Sons; gouache on parchment by Siona Benjamin
Courtesy the artist

 


These lush illuminations are simply a prelude to the visual climax of this megillah, the Hanging of Haman’s Sons.  Aside from the fact that as sons of Haman they were also Amalakites, the Seder Olam (Rashi on Megillah 16a) tells us that they had instigated the decree of Achashverosh to halt the rebuilding of the Holy Temple, thereby condemning them to death at the hands of the triumphant Jews.  Set against a vibrant blue sky the evil sons are executed in three explicit ways. Primarily we see all ten hooded and hung in a row on one beam.  To drive home the notion that each was individually evil, their ten heads are impaled on gruesome stakes attached to the top of the beam.  And finally, just to add insult to execution, two archers shoot arrows into their bodies under the direction of Mordechai.  This last detail of the image finds its precedent in an equally vivid 17th century Judeo/Persian manuscript.


Curiously following the execution of Haman’s sons in one of the small border panels is a scene described as the Circumcision of the Gentiles.  It elaborates on the verse 17, Chapter 8 that “many from among the people of the land professed themselves Jews; for fear of the Jews had fallen upon them.” Josephus (Antiquities XI) comments that in order to do this they “circumcised their foreskins ” However we see in Yevamos 24b that “Neither nor the converts of Mordechai and Esther are proper converts unless they become converted at the present time (i.e. without coercion – Rashi).”  But what prompted the artist to depict three clothed men from the waist down, spurting blood as a result of three gruesome knives?  It would seem that Benjamin has taken the verse to mean that the Gentile circumcisions were in fact a kind of punishment on very real enemies of the Jews who tried to escape their fate along their fellow conspirators.  The artist further drives home her point that the Jew’s enemies are doomed in an exceptional illumination within the text itself.  In the space created by classic listing of Haman’s sons she has placed a red-robed figure hung and suspended over a roaring fire. 

 


Triumph of the Jews; gouache on parchment by Siona Benjamin
Courtesy the artist

 


Siona Benjamin’s megillah illuminations do not flinch from the violent retribution the Jews of the kingdom visit upon their many enemies.  And while the final large panel depicts the Triumph of the Jews as a musical celebration complete with hamantashen, drums, horns, dancing and timbrels, it is surrounded by no less than four images of retaliation.  And of course this accurately reflects the overwhelming subject of the end of the Book of Esther.  Chapters 9 & 10 concern themselves with exactly this retribution as “…the Jews struck at all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering and annihilating; they treated their enemies as they pleased. (9:5)” The fact that the megillah enumerates the death of 75,810 Jewish enemies is seldom depicted with such force and originality.


One of the more fascinating elements in this megillah is the consistent representation of Haman in profile, always glancing out at the viewer.  Only once, in the triumph of Mordechai scene, does he not look at the viewer, although still depicted in profile.  While the uses of profiles in the representing individuals are many, usually that specific form represents a cypher of the individual, i.e. a one-dimensional cutout image.  It is as if Haman, the epitome of evil, can only be known superficially.  That said, as he glares out at us, he is especially dangerous.


While Benjamin’s megillah is lushly beautiful to look at, a very serious message is subtly weaved into the fabric of the Persian/Indian images and sacred text.  In a faraway time an evil man arose who planned to destroy all the Jews.  By the intervention of a brave, beautiful woman was the plot uncovered.  Ultimately the disaster was averted only by the annihilation of our enemies.  And then we were free to celebrate.  Today, as our enemies continue to rally, perhaps we need to ponder the lessons of this megillah.

 

Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com

About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com


If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

No Responses to “Siona Benjamin’s Megillas Esther

Comments are closed.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Current Top Story
Hezbollah  terror group shows off its arsenal.
Report: US Sending Indirect Military Aid to Hezbollah
Latest Sections Stories
Calmer Times. Breslov chassidim on erev Rosh Hashanah in 2012 at the grave of Rav Nachman in Uman.

As optimistic as Menachem Rosenberg is – and he said he is going to Uman – he’s sure that this year, most of the travelers will not tour other religious sites or places in Ukraine.

Three sets of three-day Yomim Tovim can seem overwhelming – especially when we are trying to stay healthy.

Plotkin-092614

Is a missed opportunity to do a mitzvah considered a sin?

Teens-Twenties-logo

The sounds and scents of the kitchen are cozy, familiar, but loud in the silence.

Everyone has a weakness. For some people it is the inability to walk past a sales rack without dropping a few hundred dollars. For others, it’s the inability to keep their house organized.

Not enjoying saying no, I often succumbed to requests viewing them as demands I couldn’t refuse.

His entire life was dedicated to Torah and he became a pivotal figure in the transmittal of the Oral Torah to the next generation.

When you don’t have anyone else to turn to… that’s when you’re tied to Hashem the closest.

While we all go to restaurants for a good meal, it is dessert, that final taste that lingers in your mouth, that is the crown jewel of any dining experience and Six Thirteen’s offerings did not disappoint.

Today, fifty years and six million (!) people later, Israel is truly a different world.

There will always be items that don’t freeze well – salads and some rice- or potato-based dishes – so you need to leave time to prepare or cook them closer to Yom Tov and ensure there is enough room in the refrigerator to store them.

In Uzbekistan, in the early twentieth century, it was the women who wore the pants.

This is an important one in raising a mentsch (and maybe even in marrying off a mentsch! listening skills are on the top of the list when I do shidduch coaching).

More Articles from Richard McBee
Jerusalem to Jericho Road: photograph by Chanan Getraide
“Chanan Getraide Photographs”: 2004 exhibition at Hebrew Union College Museum

“We are living in a Golden Age of Jewish Art, but don’t know it.”

McBee-062014-Outside

He refuses to flinch from our painful history, perhaps finding a kind of solace in the consistency of irrational enmity directed against us.

“Vidduy: The Musical” breaks through the formidable barrier of repetitive confession to allow us to begin to understand what is at the heart of this fundamental religious act.

A fascinating glimpse into the rich complexity of medieval Jewish life and its contemporary relevance had intriguingly emerged.

Silverstein’s work has long concerned itself with the intersection between the personal and Jewish Biblical narrative, significantly explored in this column in “Brighton Beach Bible” (July 27, 2009).

Not surprisingly the guardians of synagogue tradition is male dominated in both Moses Abraham, Cantor and Mohel and Synagogue Lamp Lighters.

Neither helpless victims nor able to escape the killer’s clutches, the leaders had to make impossible choices on a daily basis in a never-ending dance with the devil.

Bradford has opted to fully exploit the diverse possibilities of the physical surface by concentrating on the three-dimensional application of paint (impasto) and other material.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/siona-benjamins-megillas-esther-2/2011/03/23/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: