The scene recounts the beginning of the biblical Book of Esther. The Persian king Ahasuerus and his beautiful wife Vashti organize a huge banquet, he for the men, she for the women. Ahasuerus wants to show off Vashti and asks her to come to the men’s feast. On the far right, we see Vashti telling the messenger that she refuses to join the drunken king. Ahasuerus reacts furiously to this and disowns Vashti.
It is clear that the men seated around the table in the foreground are portraits. Two of them are mentioned by name in an inscription. On the top-left is Jan de Schietere. The inscription on the column base next to him also states his age, 39. The bearded man with his back to the viewer is Filips van Belle. The text on the edge of the cloth hanging from his cap even mentions where he comes from and what his job is: clerk to the magistrate and the Treasury of Bruges, originally from Dendermonde. The depiction combines a Bible story with elements of contemporary Bruges. At the bottom of the original frame, the painting bears the date 1574 and the coat of arms of Bruges; and, at the two corners, is the crowned ‘b’ for Bruges, which also adorns the buckle of one of the city officials. The lid or belly of the pewterware is decorated with Bruges’s coat of arms.
It is striking that, despite this being a group portrait, Antonius Claeissens sticks very closely to the Bible story referred to on the frame. For instance, Claeissens accurately depicts the foyer in which Ahasuerus’s banquet takes place. The room, located next to the garden courtyard, consists of a colonnade hung with blue-purple and red drapes, and a floor covered with alabaster, white marble, mother-of-pearl, and coloured natural stone. The guests sit on golden chairs, and the cups that they drink wine from all have different shapes, just as described in the Bible. Not all those in attendance have a cup, because, as the sentence nec erat qvi nolentes cogeret ad bibendvm on the frame shows, by order of the king, no one may be forced to drink during this feast. The prominent inclusion of this quote is meant to emphasize the king’s tolerance. By contrast, Vashti’s defiance results in her divorce from the king.
This is the least known episode from the biblical Book of Esther. In the art, literature and theatre of the 15th and 16th centuries, the main focus is on the heroine, Esther. Especially in those episodes that tell how she becomes Ahasuerus’s second wife, how she exposes treachery against her husband, and how she manages to prevent her own people from being massacred. Through her humility, she manages to turn Ahasuerus into a reasonable king, who can listen and free her people from oppression. Many of the men portrayed can be identified from other portraits and all of them are staunch Catholics. This is an important fact for understanding this painting, made in 1574, in the middle of the religious war. In this way, they are swearing allegiance to the king of Spain, full of hope for more peaceful times.