Triumph of Mordechai, by Pieter Lastman, 1624
Calvinist collectors in the Dutch Republic WERE often very interested in Old Testament art; Calvin had advocated careful study of the biblical narrative, from both Testaments equally. But a general interest in Biblical stories does not explain why the Book of Esther, in particular, was popular. There have been three main reasons offered to explain the popularity of the Purim story:
Esther Accuses Haman, by Jan Lievens, 1625
1.) The Netherlands had a free open market, religious tolerance and a broad intellectual life (Brown et al 1992). Jewish merchant families had both the finances and the taste to live well and to buy art for their increasingly attractive homes. Naturally they would want to buy narrative tales based on much loved Old Testament stories.
What was Jewish Holland like? The Dutch East India Company, founded in 1602, had a monopoly on all profits from trade east of the Cape of Good Hope. Lisbon had been conquered by the Spanish so the Dutch had to find their own way to the East for spices. Luckily the Portuguese Jews, who had fled their country, brought a great deal of experience and expertise with them. Eventually the Dutch East India Co. became a public company, and commerce expanded to the extent that the Dutch Republic was culturally and economically the most flourishing country in Europe. And by then, Dutch Jews were allowed to practise their religion. They lived their lives openly, surrounded by all the religious and community facilities they required.
Haman Begging for Mercy, by Rembrandt, 1655
2.) In 1609 King Philip III of Spain agreed only to a 12 years' truce with the Netherlands. Freedom for the tiny Dutch nation arrived, after 30 miserable years of war. But the Netherlands were still at risk. Renewed in 1621 as part of the wider European conflict of the 30 Years' War, the Dutch battle for independence was continued until 1648. Via the Peace of Westphalia, Spain finally and formally recognised the independence of the United Provinces.
The Dutch, who were well versed in the Bible, saw themselves as The New Israel and their tiny country was likened to the land of Canaan. The leaders of the revolt in the Netherlands became identified in general with Biblical heroes, while the Spanish appeared to them like tyrants eg Pharaoh, Haman and Nebuchadnezzar. Every Dutch citizen would have either remembered the tragic war against Spain from his own experience or would have remembered his parents' stories. So by celebrating the original Purim story, tiny Netherlands could explain God's miracle in their own generation.
Consider the timing of the emergence of Queen Esther paintings in the Netherlands. After only 12 years of independence, by 1621 the Dutch could see their freedom at risk again. Purim stories appeared there for the very first time in 1624 and 1625, by Lastman, Lievens and others. The audience could easily recognise the figure of Haman, with his idolatrous demands, as a representation of the hated Spanish. Esther and Mordechai were clearly personifications of the virtuous, pious Dutch. The artists paid careful attention to material and emotional detail, and often dressed the characters in contemporary garb, to reinforce the scene's moral and civic lesson.
The King and Queen with Haman, by Rembrandt, 1666
In 1634 Rembrandt married the wealthy Saskia van Uylenburgh, niece of a successful art dealer, who also lived in the Jewish quarter: Jodenbreestraat. Her money allowed the young family to live a life of prosperity and joy, and to buy a house in the main Jewish area. The family lived on the lower floors of the house, leaving the first floor for his studio. Rembrandt had at least 50 pupils and followers who worked there.
Although there was probably very little connection between Dutch Jews of the mid 17th century and Biblical Jews in the Middle East, the Jewish environment in which Rembrandt lived helped him get a feel for the Old Testament's world at the source.
Zell (2002) found a positive sympathy in Rembrandt to Judaism and to Christian messianism, via a group of philo-semitic Protestants. Zell saw that Rembrandt became intimately familiar with the deeper meaning of the Old Testament via his close friendships with two of the most important Jewish figures in Holland. They were the scholarly Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, 1654, owner of Holland's first Hebrew printing press, and the erudite physician and community leader Dr Ephraim Bueno, 1647. They were in and out of each other's houses, studios and publishing houses. Many etchings of these two famous Jews survive, mostly by Rembrandt, Govert Flinck and Jan Lievens.
Reverend Mom and Women in the Bible blogs have a wonderful painting called The Banquet of Esther 1645 by the Dutch artist Jan Victors (1616-76), a student of Rembrandt van Rijn.
1. Nadler, Steven Rembrandt's Jews, Chicago UP, 2003 (one chapter is on line) and
2. Zell, Michael Reframing Rembrandt: Jews and the Christian Image in C17th Amsterdam, Uni California Press, Berkeley, 2002.