We absolutely expected to see beautiful photographs of the ten opulent and impressive mosaics that make up this body of work. Begun in 2002 and completed in 2009, the Queen Esther series has garnered a number of honors for Broca including a gold medal at the 2003 Florence Biennale and a spot in Mosaic Art NOW’s 2011 Exhibition in Print.
The story of Queen Esther is delicious Biblical thriller about a Hebrew beauty contest winner who conceals her religion, becomes a queen and, through the courageous use of her womanly wiles, saves her people from a massacre sanctioned by her husband. Broca’s ten mosaics follow Esther from frightened teenager to mature and confident queen.
Because we know her, we weren’t surprised to find Broca very eloquent as she shares the personal bedrock that lies beneath her mosaics – the affinity for the Byzantine aesthetic formed by a harsh childhood in Communist-ruled Bucharest, an accomplished artistic career spanning multiple mediums, and, most important, her unswerving commitment to turn a spotlight on the “societal issues involving women and their plight in historical times” through the use of symbolism and metaphor.
In this book, Broca walks the reader through her process as an artist with excellent illustrations following the creation of each mosaic from initial sketch to completion. She spends just the right amount of time talking about the physical process of mosaic-making and even manages to make the process sound almost mystical. Broca clearly revels in the making of mosaics.
Broca’s narrative is especially rich for us when she speaks of her use of symbolism. Here, she discusses the element of wrought iron she employs throughout the series.
This work establishes Mordechai as the other hero and as, in effect, her (Esther’s) co-conspirator in the plan to counter Haman’s evildoing. Here, the wrought iron motif – which elsewhere symbolizes the oppression and segregation of women in an ancient patriarchal society – takes on a different meaning, becoming part of the opulent palace gate, with the royal initial appearing in its center.
And here, Broca points out how she uses the basic components of mosaic in creating a symbolic visual moment.
In the right panel of the triptych, the image of the column melts down at the bottom, first becoming two dimensional and monochromatic, next a line drawing, and finally the line pixelating into small colored fragments that form a shapeless mound of tesserae. This visual degeneration symbolizes the defeat and destruction of the Persian empire soon after the reign of King Ahashvayrosh and Queen Esther. The falling pixels or tesserae also form Esther’s name in Hebrew and Farsi.
Yes, Broca’s thoroughly satisfying portion of the book met and exceeded all our expectations for a good mosaic read.
What we hadn’t expected in The Hidden and the Revealed were the additional contributions made by feminist artist Judy Chicago, art historian Sheila Campbell and Rabbi Yosef Wosk that made this book an even richer, multi-faceted experience.
In her foreword, Chicago discusses the traditional struggles of women within the confines of historically patriarchal religions. She also finds the mosaic connection between her homage to the Empress Theodora from The Dinner Party and Broca’s Queen Esther series.
In fact, I included a place setting honoring Theodora in The Dinner Party (my monumental symbolic history of women in Western Civilization permanently housed at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum) because she is considered a pioneer of feminism due to the many laws she passed benefiting women’s rights. Moreover, the design for her plate and runner are based on the mosaic technique.
Campbell’s portion of the book, A Biblical Thriller, Told For Centuries, uses the “vignettes” from the myth selected by Broca to discuss how visual artists throughout the ages have approached the story of Esther. She cites works by Rembrandt, Gelder and Gentileschi and others, sometimes directly comparing their interpretations to Broca’s.
A Biblical Thriller, Told For Centuries is no dry art history lesson. We loved this portion of Campbell’s discussion of the Gentileschi painting below.
Perhaps the paramount factor here is that the artist was a career woman who needed to paint to support herself and her family. The story of her rape and the subsequent delayed trial are well known. After the trial she moved from her father’s studio in Rome to northern Italy, where she was quietly married off. At the time she executed this painting, she was in Venice, where the costumes depicted were very much in vogue. It seems evident, therefore, that this work was painted for a particular market, and successfully so since we know it sold quickly.
Rabbi Yosef Wosk describes his portion of the book, Beneath the Mask, as “. . . a combination of essay, poem, and narrative conversation in which I enter the text of Estr as a kinaesthetic experience.”
Illustrated with Broca’s preliminary sketches for the Queen Esther mosaics, this portion of the book reads like a personal journal written in a very contemporary voice.
I seduced the king and his first minister, made them jealous of each other for my sake, for our sake, for yours. Perhaps there were other ways but not then, not under those circumstances. Could it be that I, Estr, wore the greatest mask of them all? “Under this mask, another mask. I will never be finished removing all these faces.” (Claude Cahun)
The final section of The Hidden and Revealed is yet another lovely surprise. Here, one finds The Scroll of Esther presented in calligraphic type in both Hebrew and English facing pages.
It will come as no surprise that we highly recommend The Hidden and Revealed. Every time we pick this book up we discover something that engages our eyes and our mind. Broca’s beautiful mosaics serve as the anchor for others to explore the myth of Queen Esther politically, historically, and artistically. It really is quite an astonishing piece of work. You can order your copy by clicking here
Enjoy – Nancie
Theodora Place Setting, Part of The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago at the Brooklyn Museum