Esther Scroll Brass filigree case with turquoise and ruby Painted parchment scroll Possibly German, 19th century B’nai B’rith Klutznick Collection of the Cincinnati Skirball Museum
The festival of Purim, which takes place in March this year, celebrates the continual resilience of the Jewish people. Purim commemorates the story of Esther and is celebrated with the reading of the story or performing it in a humorous rendition known as a Purim shpiel, an extravagant skit or speech.
The story associated with Purim takes place in Persia under the rule of King Ahasuerus. Ahasuerus banished his wife for disobeying him and he set up a pageant to find a new wife. A Jewish man named Mordechai encouraged his cousin Esther to try and win the position of Queen, which she did. Esther did not reveal to King Ahasuerus that she was Jewish. Mordechai received notice from the King when he was instrumental in foiling an assassination attempt on Ahasuerus. Meanwhile, the King’s advisor, Haman, had his own altercation with Mordechai when Mordechai refused to bow down to Haman in the street. Once Haman learned that Mordechai was Jewish, he decided to kill all of the Jews in Persia. Mordechai alerted Queen Esther of Haman’s plan and she revealed her Jewish identity to King Ahasuerus and convinced him to stop the execution of the Jewish people.
Esther and her story have become a symbol of faith, courage, and resilience to the Jewish people and each year she is honored by the reading of the Book of Esther. The Book of Esther is the last of five Megillot, or scrolls, which are found in the third and final part of the Tanakh (Jewish Bible) known as Ketuvim (The Writings). The Book of Esther, commonly known simply as The Megillah is the only biblical book that does not contain the name of God.
This brass Megillah is truly a tiny treasure. The richly illuminated handwritten scroll measures only 4 inches high. Unlike the Torah scroll, which is devoid of decoration, Esther scrolls typically contain drawings and painted details. In the case of this scroll, miniature illustrations with bright scenes decorate the scroll and twisted columns separate each panel. The scroll also contains a large frontispiece representing Haman before the King. It is not known when and under what circumstances artistic embellishment of Esther scrolls began. The earliest extant illuminated Esther scrolls emanate from 16th-century Italy, commissioned by well-to-do Italian Jews.
This tiny Megillah is featured in Skirball’s special exhibition, Eighteen Tiny Treasures from the B’nai B’rith Klutznick Collection, where we explore 18 diverse miniature objects, each of which shows the remarkable artistry that goes into the making of diminutive Judaica.
The Klau Library on the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion will present ENVISIONING ESTHER: The Art and History of Illustrated Esther Scrolls on March 8th, 2017 at 7pm. Sharon Mintz, Senior Consultant/Judaica, Sotheby's New York, and Curator of Jewish Art, The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary, is cataloguing the Klau Library's illuminated Esther scrolls. She will deliver the annual Natalie Feld Memorial Lecture for the Klau Library as the Cincinnati campus leads up to Purim.
The exhibition currently on view in the Cincinnati Skirball Museum features an etching by Rembrandt entitled “The Triumph of Mordecai.” The scene depicts Haman leading Mordecai through the streets of the city, as Queen Esther and King Ahausuerus look on. Much to Haman’s displeasure, Mordecai was lauded as a hero for uncovering an assassination plot against the king. The exhibition, “Rembrandt and the Jews: The Berger Print Collection,” is on view March 5 through April 30.