Why Crucify Haman?

Artistic representations of the Purim villain shed light on medieval Jewish and Christian interpretations of the holiday.

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According to Martin Luther‘s 1543 essay “On the Jews and Their Lies,” Jews demonstrate their “bloodthirsty” and “vengeful” character in their love of the Book of Esther. Luther, a priest who initiated the Protestant Reformation and a known opponent of Jews and Judaism, also said the Book of Esther should be ignored for being “too Jewish” and packed with “too much heathen corruption.” The 18th century German Bible scholar Johann David Michaelis took Luther’s attack on Mordecai and Esther one step further, by protesting Haman’s execution without a fair trial.

Luther and Michaelis were not the only ones to think that the Persian Jews in the Book of Esther should have turned the other cheek to Haman. 

 

michelangelo's the punish of haman
Michelangelo’s “The Punishment of Haman”

In Michelangelo’s depiction in the Sistine Chapel, “The Punishment of Haman” pays Haman the theological compliment of crucifying him. Though the Jewish (and literal) reading of the Book of Esther is that Haman is the evil antagonist, Michelangelo seems to imply the opposite: Haman’s attempt to kill the Jews was justified, and the fact that the Jews persecuted and killed Haman makes him like Jesus.

Haman’s Cross to Bear

Similarly, a miniature in the collection of The Hague, from around the year 1430, shows a bejeweled Esther kneeling before Ahasuerus begging for the lives of her fellow Jews. Ahasuerus, flanked by attendants and a bearded man, who might be Mordecai, extends his golden scepter to Esther. The story progresses from the left, where Esther kneels, to her right, where a near-naked Haman is crucified behind the seated scribe.

The artist or artists who created the work, referred to as the Azor master, would have been familiar with the fourth century Vulgate, Jerome’s Latin translation of the Hebrew scriptures, which used the word crux to refer to the gallows which Haman created for Mordecai, and which Haman was later hanged upon.

The word the Hebrew Bible uses for the gallows, etz, more properly refers to a tree, though Hebrew versions of the Gospel of Matthew (controversial in their own right because there are no surviving versions from Matthew’s lifetime) also use the word etz in reference to Jesus’ crucifixion.

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Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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