Photo of a scroll with an ornately carved handle on the left and a triangle-shaped ribbon unfurling the scroll on the right-hand side; Hebrew text and illustrations are shown in the center of the off-white paper.

Raphael Montalto (fl. 17th century), scribe
Megillah: Scroll of the Book of Esther

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, Spencer Collection


Megillah: Scroll of the Book of Esther

Transcript below

Sound: A voice chants the Hebrew text at the start of the Book of Esther with traditional cantillation.

Anna Deavere Smith: So begins the biblical Book of Esther. It’s a tale of palace intrigue, secret identities, revenge, and, ultimately, redemption. The story is read on the Jewish holiday of Purim, traditionally chanted in Hebrew from a handwritten scroll, or megillah. But few scrolls are as magnificent as this one.

Created in Amsterdam in 1686, this work is a treasure of both art and text—a seamless marriage of image and word. The Hebrew text is surrounded by lavish penwork—creating a swirl of animals, cherubs, and floral motifs. Key scenes from the narrative are recreated below each block of text, while the story’s main characters pose, statuesque, alongside the elegant calligraphy.

The text tells the story of young Esther. Handpicked to be Queen of Persia, she learns of a plot to destroy her people, the Jews. Putting her own life at risk, Esther bravely reveals her Jewish identity before the king, and her people are saved.

This dramatic story held special meaning for the Jews of 17th-century Amsterdam. Many of them—or their families—were expelled from Spain and Portugal, where they faced unbearable religious persecution. Like Esther, they hid their identities in order to survive. But in the Netherlands, they were free to worship as they pleased, and Esther’s story came to symbolize their own personal tale of redemption.  

End of Transcript

We gratefully acknowledge the editorial guidance of Anne-Marie Belinfante of Mohawk Weller Library.

No copyright: United States