barber institute of fine arts
university of birmingham


Jan Steen (1625/6 – 1679)

The Wrath of Ahasuerus

Leiden, Holland, about 1671-3

Oil on canvas

129 x 167 cm

 

King Ahasuerus rises in fury as his wife Esther reveals the treachery of his chief minister Haman, who cringes to the left.

According to Bible, Haman plotted to massacre the Jews in the Persian empire.  Queen Esther summoned the two men to a banquet where she revealed the plot and her own Jewish identity.  The King’s violent reaction overthrows a vase and a peacock pie – symbol of Haman’s fallen pride.

Jan Steen is better known for his exuberant scenes of peasant life, full of humour.  Even in a biblical story, a love of melodramatic drama and colourful detail shines through.

 

Purchased 1939 (No.39.22)

 

During Black History Month 2018, this painting was the focus of an alternative interpretation by UoB students in English, Drama and American & Canadian studies. They produced labels which interrogated artworks in our collection which depict, refer to, or have been collected from people of colour. This was a collaboration with the Barber’s Learning & Engagement Team; artist and poet Dzifa Benson; and Dr Asha Rogers, Lecturer in Contemporary Postcolonial Literature.

Here are two alternative labels below:

 

Is the Bermuda Triangle a hole in the sea?

Giving way to a swirling rage which circles
It’s prey like the Bermuda Triangle swallow up passing ships
Which brings us to another triangle which didn’t swallow up ships, oh no
it left those ships alone, it needed those ships, just as it needed those people
that Triangle swallowed up People as though they were ships
or less than ships

The two figures swallowed up by darkness
You can find them underneath the
Parrot
But the Parrot has more space to speak than ‘Them’

Oh yes, there is a storm brewing outside
It is brewing like a hot hot cup of tea
Like a hot cup of tea – that tea has origins
That tea is not just dark add a little milk its English breakfast
Delve deeper, delve underneath the surface,

Underneath the caramel colour of the tea, underneath the surf, the surface of the sea
The sea remembers
Those waves that smash and crash do not smash and crash in arbitrary anger
The sea remembers
The frothy white and translucent blue smashed pieces on the floor
The body (of sea, of vase, of human) – absence is a [w]hole, isn’t it?

Anya Aujla-Jones, BA English.

Esther’s Wrath

Honey, hang him and his plans to kill-
The bubbling sky our curtain holds, and our Judaism.

The parrot in my room,
and barely noticing when they take him out
to fly over the palace, then out over the plane.
If one day he doesn’t come back, I can blame them-
pretend it isn’t the instinct of the bird,
to fly back to a hot home

Our guest, he wants to send me to a hot hell
To the help, sorry you have to see this, this hurricane eye.
I focus on the carnival feathers of my parrot,
and the palms-lighter-than-the-back touching them.

Megan Reddy, BA English Literature.

 

 

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