Precious Possessions

Megillat Esther (Esther Scroll)

Italy, ca. 1675
S 135

The biblical book of Esther, which is read publicly in the synagogue on Purim, must be recited from a handwritten parchment scroll. Although the Rabbis prohibited the decoration of Torah scrolls because they contain the name of God, artistic embellishment of Esther scrolls was permitted as the text does not contain the Divine name. The earliest decorated scrolls of Esther date to the mid-sixteenth century.

Italian Jewry produced numerous lavishly illustrated scrolls, replete with putti, flora and fauna. The scheme of ornamentation in this scroll is indicative of the way in which the Jews of Italy incorporated contemporary cultural aesthetics into their ceremonial objects. The scroll opens with the image of a nude woman, and putti recline on the upper balustrade throughout the megillah. Eighteen narrative vignettes appear in the lower panels beneath the text; the scenes begin with the feasts of Ahasuerus and Vashti and end with Esther and Mordecai recording the Purim story. In cartouches above the text, the repeated image of hands positioned in the gesture of a Priestly Benediction suggests that the scroll's original owner was a kohen, a member of the priestly tribe.