Mixed Emotions in the Face of Esther
By Logan Guzik
Colorful, elaborate, and detailed images are not commonplace in most modern Bibles; yet just over two decades ago, Donald Jackson broke this custom with the creation of the Saint John’s Bible (University). He and the other creators sought to embody characteristics of medieval manuscripts throughout the texts and images, but with a modern twist. Various illustrations and images are spread throughout the Saint John’s Bible, each created for more than mere decoration. They symbolize ideas in the texts and invite readers to consider meanings they may not have considered; one such image is the illumination of Esther.
Creating The Saint John’s Bible
Donald Jackson, a renowned calligrapher, had always dreamed of creating a hand-written, illuminated Bible since his childhood. In 1995, he met with Eric Hollas, a monk at Saint John’s Abbey, to discuss his ambitions, and in 1998, two teams began working on the monumental project (A Lifetime’s Dream). The first team, located in Wales and headed by Donald Jackson, consisted of artists responsible for the detailed illustrations in the seven volumes of the Saint John’s Bible. They also painstakingly wrote the text of the Bible by hand. The translation they wrote is the New Revised Standard Version. The second team, located in Collegeville, Minnesota, consisted of scholars who researched and organized the writing of the Bible (The Process). In 2011, the project was finally complete, and 299 Heritage Edition sets, full-size printings of the original Saint John’s Bible, were created shortly afterward (University). Each book is about two feet tall and three feet wide when completely open. Permanent ink and gold and silver metallic foils cover each page (Poole). The Saint John’s Bible, although created in the twenty-first century, has characteristics of medieval texts with detailed, elaborate calligraphy and images. The formation of this Bible accomplished the creators’ goals to preserve the tradition of handwritten, illuminated Bibles, since the method had been nearly nonexistent since the invention of the printing press (The Process).
In 2012, one of the Heritage Edition sets was donated by Jeff and Lori Northrup to Samford University. The idea came to them after seeing a documentary on the creation of the Saint John’s Bible. They were fascinated by its unique use of conjoined contemporary and ancient objects within some of the artwork. When buying the Heritage Edition set, the Northrups thought about numerous places to donate it. Jeff and Lori Northrup are both Catholic, and despite Samford being a predominantly Protestant university, they chose the Harwell G. Davis Library to house the Saint John’s Bible, which follows the canon of the Old Testament Catholic scripture (Northrup). Eric Hollas has said that the Saint John’s Bible allows anyone “to bring its beauty, spiritual, and historical significance into their lives and the lives of others.” He also believes that it “ignites imagination as it imparts the word of God” (Poole). Jeff and Lori Northrup’s beliefs align well with Hollas. Having both worked at Samford for many years, they enjoyed their roles on the faculty and sought to bring the Saint John’s Bible to their school for students to advance their learning and admire its unique creation (Northrup).
Since it was created for a Catholic abbey and university, the Saint John’s Bible follows the Catholic canon of the Old Testament. This includes portions of the Book of Esther found only its Greek version. Since in one of these portions, Esther offers a prayer to God expressing her personal attitude about her position in the Persian court, the Greek version played a significant role in shaping Jackson’s illumination of Esther. In this essay, I offer an interpretation of the image drawing mainly on the Hebrew portion of Esther and then consider it in light of the longer Greek text.
Esther and Her Depiction
The illumination of Esther is located on the page with chapters five and six of Esther. Esther, whose true Jewish name was Hadassah, was an orphan who was later received and cared for by her cousin, Mordecai. She lived in Susa during the reign of King Ahasuerus (Xerxes I) when the Persian empire was the largest empire on earth (Jones 10-14). The story of Esther starts with Queen Vashti’s refusal to be paraded by her husband Ahasuerus before the people. In response, Ahasuerus banishes Vashti and holds a beauty contest among the most beautiful young virgins in the land so that the winner may be made queen. Of these women, Esther was chosen. Eventually, she wins the favor of the king and is made queen (Jones 18, 27-29).
Donald Jackson and his team of artists and scholars took these first two chapters into great consideration when creating the Esther Illumination. The role of this image portrays the scripture into a visible reality, allowing the reader to picture the story. Esther is split vertically into two halves: Jewish and Persian. On her right half, the colors are dark and bland, and the detail is simple, embodying the poor life she lived as an orphan in a foreign nation. The alternating pattern at the top of the Jewish half, which matches a similar pattern on the mantle of Elijah, and the Menorah above her head represent her Jewish nationality (Sink 68). Her body is portrayed like a vapor, symbolizing that her meaning in society at this point in her life is vague and unknown. Who she is has not yet been completely formed. Meanwhile, the left half contains elaborate and bold colors. Intricate apparel covers her whole head and body, and ornate patterns fill the background. When she wins the favor of Ahasuerus, she takes on a new Persian identity. Her life is now elegant as queen of such a mighty empire. Additionally, A Huma, a mythological creature in Zoroastrianism, rests atop her head. This creature in Persian religion signaled an omen of becoming a king, or in Esther’s case, a queen (Ancient). What appears as a well-drawn image actually contains chapters of Esther in itself. Jackson used the image as another method of reading the Saint John’s Bible. It allows readers to remember the message of Esther in an accurate manner that takes them back to the time period in which she lived. The illumination also invites readers to ponder the meaning of the book through their own interpretation.
Interpretations of Esther’s Emotions
One Samford student, Harper McGowan, when asked on her thoughts about the illumination remarked, “Half the face looks like a shadow and the other half looks like a sunrise.” This interpretation views the story of Esther like a transformation. Her early life begins like a vague and unclear shadow, but transforms into a bright sunrise representing her new, vibrant life.
Another significant aspect of the illumination is the expression on Esther’s face. Esther did not volunteer to join the beauty contest, she was chosen (Jones 27). Whether she wanted to or not is unclear, but it can be assumed that no woman would want to be objectified and forced into a position of total submission to a man. Even as queen, she was no equal to the king, and her life belonged to him (Jones 62-63). The facial expression could then be viewed as one of sorrow or suffering. The illumination, in this view, brings to light the mistreatment of women in ancient society. Esther must experience inequality in order to be used for the good of her people.
Later in the book of Esther, a decree is sent out by the king to kill all Jews. Mordecai begs and persuades Esther to talk to the king to save them. He even believed that God could have placed her in this position for the purpose of changing the king’s decision. She replies with: “I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I will perish” (Esther 4:16 NRSV). Esther knows that her actions could lead to death, as was common for uninvited guests who entered the king’s presence, yet she still does what must be done to save the Jews (Jones 58-59, 62-63). Her facial expression in the illumination could then be viewed as one of fearful loyalty. Her head is held high, yet her eyes appear tired, and her eyebrows hint dread for what may occur. In this view, the illumination portrays Esther’s character throughout the book as loyal to her family, her people, and God.
Jackson’s interpretation is also informed by the Greek version of Esther. This version includes prayers offered by Mordecai and Esther at the end of chapter four in addition C. In her prayer, Esther tells God, “You know my necessity–that I abhor the sign of my proud position” (Esther 14:16). She later prays, “save us from the hands of evil doers. And save me from my fear” (Esther 14:19). Jackson wrote both of these phrases in large script in the margins of the same page as the illumination. To readers who know this text, Esther’s expression may suggest her uncomfortableness and vulnerability in her position as queen (Sink 67). The Greek text also states that Esther was “seized with deadly anxiety” (Esther 14:1), and that she “put on the garments of distress and mourning” and “covered her head with ashes and dung” (Esther 14:2). This description is reflected with the apparel of Esther on her Jewish half. On the left, she is still depicted as a queen, yet on the right, she is dirtied and humbled in her state of anxiety before God. This is in stark contrast with the perception of her emotions in Esther 4:16. The quotes taken from Esther 14 (addition C) reveal a different portrayal of Esther than in the Hebrew text used by Protestants. In this view, she is anxious and fearful beyond what she can bear. I assume that Jackson sought to emphasize all possible emotions Esther felt in his creation of her complex facial expression.
The illumination of Esther encourages individual interpretation, allowing anyone in any walk of faith or denomination to find meaning. Her facial depiction captures her many complex emotions and brings to life the Esther portrayed in the Protestant and Catholic texts. The delicate detail devoted to its creation accurately depicts the story of Esther to biblical, historical, and cultural standards and enhances the scripture for any reader.
The Illumination of Esther in the Heritage Edition of Saint John’s Bible
Medium: Reproduction of hand-drawn illumination
Artist: Donald Jackson
Created and Installed: Created in 2011. Installed at Samford University in 2012.
Location: Harwell Goodwin Davis Library, 800 Lakeshore Drive, Birmingham, Alabama, 35229
“A Lifetime’s Dream.” The Saint John’s Bible, saintjohnsbible.org/Process/Index. Accessed 11 Sept. 2020.
“Ancient Persian Symbols.” Ancient Symbols, http://www.ancient-symbols.com/persian-symbols.html. Accessed 12 Sept. 2020.
Jones, Colin D. Exploring Esther: Serving the Unseen God. Day One Publications, 2005, pp. 10-63.
Northrup, Lori. Interview with Logan Guzik. Samford University, Birmingham, AL, 29 Sept. 2020.
Poole, Philip. “Samford to Host Presentation on The Saint John’s Bible.” Samford University, 19 Mar. 2014, http://www.samford.edu/news/2014/Samford-to-Host-Presentation-on-The-Saint-Johns-Bible.
Santa Clara, University. “Research Guides: The Saint John’s Bible, Heritage Edition: Introduction.” Introduction – The Saint John’s Bible, Heritage Edition – Research Guides at Santa Clara University, 9 Sept. 2020, libguides.scu.edu/saintjohnsbible.
Sink, Susan. The Art of the Saint John’s Bible: a Reader’s Guide to Historical Books, Letters, and Revelation. vol. 2, Liturgical Press, 2012, pp. 67-68.
“The Process.” The Saint John’s Bible, saintjohnsbible.org/Process/Index. Accessed 11 Sept. 2020.
“Vision & Values.” The Saint John’s Bible, saintjohnsbible.org/Process/Index. Accessed 11 Sept. 2020.
Sources for Further Information
Patella, Michael, and Benjamin C. Tilghman. Word and image: The Hermeneutics of the Saint John’s Bible. The Saint John’s Bible, 2013.
Logan Guzik ’22 was a student in the first-year seminar on Religious Images in Birmingham (UCCA 102) in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in Fall 2020.
Published October 29, 2020.