The Book of Esther forms part of Ketuvim (Writings) which is the third section of the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible. A short book consisting of 10 chapters and 167 verses, it is one of only two biblical books in which God does not get a mention. The divine presence and intervention are nevertheless felt throughout the narrative, whose central figure, a Jewish maiden called Esther saves the Jews of Persia from an annihilation plot, and is crowned Queen of Persia.
The book’s Hebrew name – Megilat Ester (Scroll of Esther) – clearly indicates that it has been traditionally copied on and read from a scroll. Megilat Ester is read yearly at Purim (Festival of Lots), a Jewish spring festival with a carnival-like atmosphere that celebrates the deliverance of the Persian Jews from the death sentence. Purim is Hebrew for ‘lots’, a reference to the lots cast to determine the day when the Jews of Persia would be killed.
During the festival, Megilat Ester is read publicly in the synagogue from a plain parchment scroll wound on a single rod affixed to its left extremity. Private scrolls used by worshippers to follow the synagogue service, or for home reading, are either handwritten or printed, and some contain decorations and illustrations. The earliest decorated Scrolls of Esther appeared in Italy in the 16th century CE. The tradition of decorating and illustrating the Scroll of Esther flourished in the 17th century, and continued in the following centuries, with handsome specimens being produced in Europe, particularly in Germany and Holland, as well as the Middle East and North Africa.
This Esther scroll is filled with colourful text illustrations accompanied by Hebrew inscriptions taken from the Book of Esther, which the unnamed artist was evidently well-acquainted with. According to some scholars the manuscript was produced in Holland around 1630 or 1640 CE. The figures of jesters playing musical instruments, scenes depicting the merrymaking and distribution of gifts during the Purim festival, as well as the drawings featuring contemporary ships are particularly memorable.
Browse through the entire manuscript on the Digitised Manuscripts website.