Esther before Ahasuerus, from book of Esther (מגלת אסתר) by Unknown artist, Italy

Unknown artist, Italy

Esther before Ahasuerus, from book of Esther (מגלת אסתר), 1617, Manuscript illumination, The National Library of Israel, Jerusalem, Israel Ms. Heb. 197/89=4, The National Library of Israel, Jerusalem, Israel

Close Close
Zoom in Zoom in
Zoom out Zoom out
Reset image Reset image

Esther Reenacted in Ritual

Commentary by

Although the Jewish custom of reading the Scroll of Esther (or ‘Megillah’) at Purim dates back to the early rabbinic era, the custom of lavishly decorating such scrolls with ornament and illustration only began in sixteenth-century Italy. At the time of this scroll’s creation in the seventeenth century, Italian–Jewish communities emulated their Christian neighbours in both lavish artistic patronage and the Baroque style, setting off a revival in Jewish art.

Unlike the other two works in this exhibition, this illumination supplies minimal scenery. Even Ahasuerus’s throne is not especially elaborate or grand. In place of depicting the presumably large palatial setting of the biblical episode, the artist merely suggests it through the ornate Baroque floral ornament framing the scene and the scroll as a whole. Moreover, this Esther does not faint, but solemnly grips the sceptre offered to her by King Ahasuerus.

But like the other two artists in this exhibition, the illuminator of the scroll does include minor characters in the scene. Indeed, human figures fill the entire space, focusing the viewer’s attention wholly on them. Four unidentified individuals look on as Esther, seeming confident and collected in her regal purple dress, kneels before the king. A man at the centre of the composition glares at the king and tries to block Esther from grasping the sceptre. While this at first glance seems to be Haman, elsewhere in this scroll Haman wears bright red and sports a moustache. Neither does this man resemble any of the sons or courtiers of Haman as represented elsewhere in the scroll. Either way, his expression suggests that Esther had enemies in the palace, despite her efforts to hide her identity. The three other figures are uninvolved in the action—including two women of the palace, perhaps concubines. Their lack of interest suggests their ignorance of Esther’s plan.

The fact that this scroll’s figures wear the garb of the artist’s time raises the question: did the artist, or his community, see themselves as Esthers of their own era, adopting the clothing and visual styles of their Gentile neighbours even as they made Jewish art; perhaps evading thereby the scowls of their enemies? If so, then this dignified Esther, rather than the fainting Esther of the Greek and Latin versions, may point to something more than the biblical text itself: a Jewish self-image at a later point in history.



‘NLI Moshe ben Avraham Pescarolo Esther Scroll, Ferrara, 1616’, The Centre for Jewish art, available at

Read next commentary