HEBREW MANUSCRIPT. Esther Scroll.
An extremely rare illustrated Dutch Megillat Esther, 17th century. Hand-illustrated in brown ink on vellum, 6 membranes, 300 mm. high, 358 mm. long. 16 columns, (125 x 123 mm.) of 18 lines. First two membranes lined in rose-colored silk; three wide, rose-colored ribbon strips sewn to the scroll's beginning, joining in a long ribbon used to wrap around the rolled megillah; mounted on wooden roller 340 mm. long. Silk somewhat worn, ribbons later replacement, opening panel worn. Signed by David, son of Jacob Katz.
This extraordinary Esther scroll boasts the largest and most extensive illustrated cycle known from any other extant megillah. Closely related to the narrative cycle of the previous megillah, the scroll's 60 framed narrative scenes, drawn in spectacular detail, fully occupy the scroll's horizontal and vertical borders. That these illustrations are the work of a Jewish artist is strongly suggested by the skillful incorporation of micrographic texts into more than twelve of the megillah's scenes. Written in the same ink as the drawings, these often inconspicuous texts are usually repeated verbatim by the larger, more legible inscriptions that identify each narrative episode. Significantly enough, the identity of the artist may well be indicated within the scroll itself: a colophon inscribed across the cycle's final illustration proclaims that the scroll was finished by David, son of Jacob Katz. Whether this individual was the megillah's illustrator, scribe or both is unspecified.
The narrative cycle is preceded by an elaborate blessing panel. The format and imagery of this panel clearly recalls triumphal arches, which characteristically display a triple arcade topped by two winged allegorical figures of Victory. The arcade's monumental central gateway is flanked by two smaller arches housing floral vases; resting atop the gateway is a zodiac wheel, crowned by the flanking Victories. The wheel's twelve zodiacal signs are identified by their Hebrew names, beginning with Taleh [Aries], representing the first month, Nisan, in which Haman cast his lot against the Jews, and concluding with Dagim [Pisces], the final month, Adar, upon which the lot fell and the holiday of Purim is celebrated. The blessings recited before the megillah reading are inscribed in the wheel's center; those recited after the reading fill the gateway below. The entire arcade stands atop a base adorned with two rampant lions supporting an inscribed foliate cartouche.
The order in which the cycle's scenes are to be read varies, with most vignettes, however, placed adjacent to the text panel they illustrate. The order is as follows:
1. Ahasuerus sitting on King Solomon's throne 2. Ahasuerus' Feast 3. Vashti's Feast 4. Ahasuerus summoning Vashti 5. Execution of Vashti 6. Dispatching of messengers 7. Gathering of maidens 8. Ahasuerus choosing Esther 9. Crowning of Esther 10. Mordecai overhearing Bigthan and Teresh's plot 11. Esther informing Ahasuerus of plot 12. Plot confirmed to Ahasuerus 13. Hanging of Bigthan and Teresh 14. Recording of event in Book of Chronicles 15. People bowing before Haman (left); Mordecai sitting, refusing to bow (right) 16. Ahasuerus giving his ring to Haman 17. Scribes recording Haman's decree against the Jews 18. Dispatching of messengers 19. Ahasuerus and Haman drinking together 20. City of Shushan in mourning (background); Mordecai in sackcloth and ashes (foreground) 21. Esther swooning upon hearing of Haman's decree 22. Mordecai refusing clothes sent by Esther 23. Esther commanding Hatakh 24. Mordecai giving copy of decree to Hatakh for Esther 25. Mordecai and Jews assembled in synagogue 26. Esther appearing before Ahasuerus 27. Esther's first feast with Ahasuerus and Haman 28. Haman angered by Mordecai's refusal to bow 29. Haman with Zeresh and sons 30. Constructing of gallows 31. Reading from Book of Chronicles to Ahasuerus 32. Ahasuerus instructing Haman to honor Mordecai 33. Haman leading royal stag (right); Mordecai sitting in gate (left) 34. Haman cutting Mordecai's hair 35. Triumph of Mordecai 36. Mordecai having returned to the palace gate 37. Haman with Zeresh and sons (left); soldiers fetching Haman for Esther's feast (right) 38. Esther's second feast - revealing of Haman's plot 39. Ahasuerus in his garden discovering Haman's sons chopping trees 40. Haman pleading with Esther and being discovered by Ahasuerus 41. Hanging of Haman 42. Ahasuerus giving his ring to Mordecai 43. Esther before Ahasuerus 44. Mordecai dictating reversal of Haman's decree to scribe 45. Dispatch of messengers 46. Mordecai in royal garb 47. Jews rejoicing 48. Gentiles befriending the Jews 49. Jews taking revenge on enemies 50. Jews taking revenge on enemies in Shushan 51. Hanging of Haman's sons 52. Esther before Ahasuerus 53. Jews taking further revenge on enemies 54. Mordecai recording events 55. Jews feasting and exchanging portions 56. Giving alms to poor 57. Mordecai and Esther recording events 58. Dispatching of messengers 59. Mordecai riding in royal chariot 60. Mordecai addressing the Jews in synagogue.
The illustrations of this cycle are extraordinary, providing unprecedented insight into the nature of Esther scroll decoration in particular, and Dutch Jewish art and life in general. The inclusion of numerous midrashic episodes reveals the profound influence that extra-biblical commentaries could have upon early megillah illustration. While a few of these midrashic scenes -- such as Haman's daughter dumping a chamber pot onto her father's head (scene 35, BT, Megillah 16a) -- continued to enjoy popularity in later megillot, primarily of the 18th-century, most are all-but-absent from other known extant scrolls. Extremely rare are such illustrations as Ahasuerus sitting on King Solomon's throne (scene 1, Esther Rabbah 1:12), Haman serving as Mordecai's barber (scene 34, BT, Megillah 16a), and Haman's sons chopping trees (scene 39, BT, Megillah 16a). Extraordinary too is the artist's creative use of engraved models. The visualization of Esther 9:23, "gifts to the poor," for example, shows a procession of physically infirm men -- among them a dwarf -- receiving alms. These clearly humorous charicatures were likely exerpted from a popular printed source and inserted by the artist into this new, narrative context. It is very probable, in fact, that the majority of the scroll's illustrations to some degree reflect printed models, brilliantly brought together to create this most extensive and elaborate Esther scroll cycle.
Highly exceptional too is the artist's inclusion of genre scenes, offering the modern viewer a fascinating window into 17th-century Dutch Jewish life. A remarkable scene of synagogue worship shows ten Jews prostrating themselves before a Torah Ark, their heads and bodies dramatically concealed beneath prayer shawls (scene 25). A typical 17th-century Dutch hanging lamp adds a distinctly local flavor to the synagogue's interior. Additional reflections of the period and locale are seen in the meticulously-rendered glass goblets, silver cups and decadent serving pieces that embellish the megillah's numerous feast scenes. It is the artist's inclusion of these and other such specific objects that permits us to determine accurately the true provenance of his magnificent scroll.
Four closely related dates are in fact inscribed on the scroll itself. The opening panel contains three of these inscriptions: the column bases of the arcade read: "Anno Mundi 5212 [1451/52]" and "A.D. 1451"; the cartouche at bottom proclaims that "This writing begins[sic] in the year la-Yehudim Haytah Orah' [Esther 8:16]", giving the chronogram 212 [1451/52]. A fourth date, inscribed on the cycle's final illustration, asserts in Hebrew that the scroll was "Finished in Shushan in the year 213 [1452/53]." This amusing claim that the megillah was completed in Shushan, the Persian capitol in which the Esther narrative takes place, may well suggest that the inscribed dates too were not meant to be taken at face value. Perhaps intended as some sort of Purim joke, the significance of the years 1451-1453 -- far too early for the scroll's production -- has yet to be uncovered.
The true provenance of the scroll -- The Netherlands, 17th C -- is revealed not only by the iconographic contents of its illustrated cycle, but also by its technique. The artist's expert use of brown ink, to imitate the visual quality of engravings, places his scroll within a select group of megillot known to emanate from this period and region. Dated examples of this type are preserved in London, Victoria & Albert (1643, MSL 36-1879); a scroll previously in Frankfurt, Rothschild Museum (1649, possibly by Salom Italia), current location unknown; and New York, NYPL (1685/86, Spencer Collection, Heb. Ms. 2). Another, undated, example is known from NY, JTSL (Scroll 38). THE ILLUSTRATIONS OF THE PRESENT SCROLL, HOWEVER, ARE UNRELATED TO THESE EXAMPLES. WITH THE EXCEPTION OF THE PREVIOUS SCROLL, NO COMPRABLE MEGILLAH EXISTS IN ANY KNOWN PUBLIC COLLECTION.