(b. 1518, Venezia, d. 1594, Venezia)

Esther before Ahasuerus

Oil on canvas, 207,4 x 273 cm
Royal Collection, Windsor

The subject of the picture is taken from the Book of Esther which exists in two versions: the first of Hebraic origin as part of the Old Testament and the second of Greek origin in the Apocrypha. It is the second more emotional account that seems to have been known to Tintoretto. He has depicted the dramatic moment (15:2-16) when Esther, the Jewish queen of the Persian emperor, Ahasuerus, intervenes on behalf of her people in Persia who were threatened with death in a proclamation issued by the chief minister, Haman. Esther attended the court in regal dress in order to appeal to Ahasuerus. 'But as she was speaking, she fell fainting. And the King was agitated, and all his servants sought to comfort her' (15:7). Ahasuerus stands on the left at the top of the flight of steps at the foot of which Esther kneels, supported by her entourage. Following this intercession and further deliberation Ahasuerus overrules Haman, who was himself hanged as a consequence of his ill-judged policy. The story of Esther was often treated as a prefiguration of the role of the Virgin in the Last Judgment.

On stylistic evidence the painting can be dated to the second half of the 1540s, close to the Last Supper of 1547 (Venice, San Marcuola) and the Miracle of Saint Mark of 1548 (Venice, Accademia). During the 1540s Tintoretto displayed a close interest in Central Italian art, particularly the works of Michelangelo and Raphael, which he probably knew through such secondary sources as prints. As a result Mannerist concepts were grafted onto the Venetian training that Tintoretto received in the workshop of Bonifazio de' Pitati. The tall swaying figures and operatic gestures bespeak Central Italian influence, while the warm flesh tones and rich colouring attest the artist's Venetian origins. The conflation of these two aspects became the basis of Tintoretto's mature style.

The composition of Esther before Ahasuerus is dependent in a general sense upon the cartoon by Raphael of the Sacrifice of Lystra, a preparatory drawing for the tapestries in the Sistine Chapel, but the stooping figure on the far right fits more easily into the context of Raphael's School of Athens in the Stanza della Segnatura. The male head at the right edge towards the back, looking out of the picture, may possibly be a portrait of Pietro Aretino, one of the greatest writers of the Renaissance, a friend of Titian and an early patron of Tintoretto. The scale of the painting accords with many of Tintoretto's undertakings dating from the 1540s including the scenes from the life of Saint Mark (Venice, Accademia) executed for the Scuola Grande di San Marco. The free handling of Esther before Ahasuerus is also typical, and several changes were made to the figures by the artist as he worked on the canvas, creating the effect of improvisation.