Esther scroll (megillat Ester)

Attributed to Shalom Italia (Mantua, circa 1619 – Amsterdam, circa 1655)

Amsterdam, circa 1641

Etching on copper and manuscript on velum, sculpted wood roller

48 cm (axis), 26.5 x 461.5 cm (parchment)

Gift of Inna Nahmias in memory of her husband Élie Nahmias

Attributed to Shalom Italia (Mantua, circa 1619 – Amsterdam, circa 1655), Esther scroll, Amsterdam, circa 1641

Attributed to Shalom Italia (Mantua, circa 1619 – Amsterdam, circa 1655), Esther scroll, Amsterdam, circa 1641

The Scroll of Esther (megillat Ester) is one of the Five Scrolls or Five Megillot (hamesh megillot) read in the synagogue during the festival of Purim. It recounts how Esther, wife of King Ahasuerus, and her uncle Mordecai foiled the minister Haman’s plan to have all the Jews in the kingdom killed.

Esther scrolls were usually copied on parchment and more rarely on paper. They were rolled around a single axis and originally devoid of decoration. In Italy in the 16th century they began to be luxuriously decorated as artists competed in their inventiveness in depicting the story’s main characters and key scenes (the king’s banquet, the triumph of Mordecai, Esther interceding with Ahasuerus, the hanging of Haman and his sons, etc.). The development of printing in no way reduced the prestige of Esther manuscripts. To cater for clients’ demands and reduce production costs, many 17th and 18th-century scrolls were mass produced with engraved decorations and illustrations often heightened with colour, leaving blank space for the calligrapher to copy the text.

The son of the Mantuan printer Mordekhai d’Italia, Shalom Italia settled in Amsterdam around 1641, working there as an engraver at a time when there were very few Jewish artists in the city. He remained there until at least 1648, perhaps until he died. Most of his works are Esther scrolls but also produced portraits of prominent members of the Portuguese community such as Judah Leon Templo (1641) and Menasseh ben Israel (1642) and illustrated books and marriage contracts (ketubbot). His megillot are distinctive in their very architectural, baroque decoration, with the text placed in large arcades and separated by alcoves containing the story’s main characters (Esther, Haman, Ahasuerus, Mordecai).

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