Botticilli’s Esther stands alone, just outside of the walls of Ahasuerus’ palace. The perspective seems off; she’s taller than the outer walls, gathering the folds of her voluminous dark pink dress in her right arm, her left hand pointing heavenward. She may be heading for a life of royalty, but her hand suggests that she knows who she must ultimately answer to, her life’s mission extends far beyond the limits of the stone walls ahead. Her natural, verdant surroundings will soon be swallowed by the human structure ahead when Esther enters the palace, much the way life as she once knew it would be gone forever.
Esther is almost never painted as a solitary figure. In other traditional compositions, she is primped and groomed by her royal maidens, surrounded by courtiers or stands weeping before the king or pointing an angry finger at Haman, her nemesis. These paintings remind us that the text of Esther is crowded. There are always ministers and gatekeepers milling about and offering advice. There are beauty contestants and an entire postal service at the ready. Even Esther’s most definitive leadership moment, when she finally understands that to lead is to risk her life, she cannot speak to Mordechai directly but through a messenger. When she calls a fast, she summons all those serving her to do the same: “Go, assemble all the Jews who live in Shushan, and fast in my behalf; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens will observe the same fast. Then I shall go to the king, though it is contrary to the law; and if I am to perish, I shall perish!” (4:16). She is never alone.
Botticelli, with his innovative composition, helps us imagine Esther’s inner life just before everything changes for her. It’s a moment not even the Book of Esther offers us. And as we look at the painting from a leadership perspective, Botticelli challenges us to stop ourselves, right before entering a space that may require our reinvention, to reflect on who we really are before jumping into new responsibilities and a network of people, all of whom may want something from us. In this quiet painting of an outsized Esther, the artist invites us to consider several questions she may have been asking herself:
- When I lead, who really has authority over me?
- How do I both operate within a space and transcend it?
- As I surround myself with new people in a new position, how do I hold onto my identity and my values?
Reinvention requires seclusion, else we run the risk of always defining ourselves in relation to what others need from us or who they want us to be. Botticelli gave Esther what she may have needed most and never gotten, a moment of stillness before a life of leadership took over.
Dr. Erica Brown is an Associate Professor at The George Washington University and director of its Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership. Her latest book is The Book of Esther: Power, Fate and Fragility in Exile. Erica can be reached here.