In this biblical scene from the Old Testament the elderly Mordecai is led on horseback through the streets of Susa by the disgraced Persian minister Haman. This is the triumphant end to a tale about conspiracy and revenge found in the Book of Esther.
The historical event can probably be dated to the 6th century BC, during the Babylonian Exile, and is celebrated today with the Jewish holiday of Purim. It commemorates the saving of the Jewish people from Haman, who had plotted their elimination.
Mordecai was the guardian of the orphaned beauty Esther, who had been chosen as queen by the Persian ruler Ahasuerus. The king’s minister Haman had been deeply offended, when Mordecai had refused to pay him respect. He consequently set up a gallows on which to have Mordecai hanged and secretly planned to murder all the Jews in the kingdom. Haman, however, was unaware that the king was deeply grateful to Mordecai because he had had prevented an attack against his life.
Esther asked the king to prepare a banquet to honour Mordecai, where Haman was invited as a guest. Referring to himself, Haman asked how the king would honour a person who had served him extraordinarily well. Referring to Mordecai, the king replied that such a person should be dressed in royal attire, and triumphantly be led through the streets of Susa on the royal horse. To his horror, Haman was then ordered by the king to honour Mordecai in this way.
Soon after, Esther organized a second royal banquet, where she revealed her Jewish identity to the king, as well as Haman’s murderous plot against her people. Disgusted and enraged, Ahasuerus ordered to have Haman hanged on the gallows intended for Mordecai.
In this etching, Rembrandt sets the densely populated scene before a massive architectural structure, which seems to represent the Persian royal palace. Light falls sharply in from the left, illuminating a balcony, where Esther and the king appear, witnessing the people below, enthusiastically paying their respects to the modest Mordecai. Through a monumental archway a building with a cupola can be seen in the distance.