This long rectangular panel was made as a predella, the lowest tier of an altarpiece, and was commissioned by the Company of Saint Jerome for their church in Arezzo. The main panel, now in the Museo Civico, Arezzo, shows the Virgin Mary with symbols that refer to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which states that she was conceived without sin.
The central scene shows Esther appealing to her husband, the Persian king Ahasuerus, to put a stop to his advisor Haman’s plans to massacre the Jews, an intervention which made her a hero (Esther 8: 3–6). Esther is here singled out by Ahasuerus, a gesture that is seen as a forerunner to the Virgin Mary being chosen by God to be born free from sin. The surrounding scenes show Saint Jerome, who appeared in the visions of various clerics after his death.
This long rectangular panel is painted with scenes from the life of Saint Jerome, surrounding a central image from the story of the Old Testament hero Esther. It was made as a predella, the lowest tier of an altarpiece which runs along the bottom of the main panel.
The altarpiece was commissioned jointly in 1519 by Niccolò Gamurrini, a papal officer in Rome, and the Company of Saint Jerome for their church in Arezzo. The contract stated that Signorelli ought to include painted pilasters and a predella, decorated with scenes ‘pleasing to the confraternity’. The main panel, which is now in the Museo Civico, Arezzo, shows the Virgin Mary surrounded by saints and prophets, including Saint Jerome, who stands in the foreground in the position of honour to her right. The Virgin is shown with symbols that refer to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which stated that she was conceived without sin.
Esther was sometimes seen as an Old Testament forerunner of the Virgin; like Mary, she was a humble Jewish woman who was elevated to a position of high rank. Esther was married to Ahasuerus, King of Persia; through her bravery in appealing to him to spare the Jews from a massacre planned by his chief advisor, she became a hero of her people. This scene shows her pleading to the King to put a stop to the murderous decree (Esther 8: 3–6).
Here she is attended by two maids, who support her body; Esther was so fearful of Ahasuerus that she fainted in his presence. Horrified at her state, he promised to protect the Jews. These details come from apocryphal Greek additions to the biblical text, which describe how, ‘raising his golden sceptre he laid it on Esther’s neck, embraced her and said, "Speak to me."’ This singling out of Esther by the King was often associated with the Virgin’s special status as born free from sin.
The three surrounding scenes show episodes that, according to the legend of Saint Jerome, occurred after his death when he appeared to various clerics as a vision. In the first scene to the far left, Saint Jerome and Saint John the Baptist appear to Saint Augustine; in the next, he appears with Christ to Sulpicius Severus. Finally, to the right of the scene with Esther, he appears to Saint Cyril, again with Christ. These episodes were recorded in a fourteenth-century Latin text by Giovanni da Bologna, translated into Italian and published frequently in the fifteenth century as Il Divoto Transito del Glorioso Sancto Hieronymo.
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