The Book of Esther, read on the festival of Purim, recounts the escape of the Jews of Persia from annihilation during the reign of King Ahasuerus (probably Xerxes I, ruled 485-464 B.C.E.). Haman, the king's vizier, plotted to kill all the Jews in the kingdom and cast lots (purim) to determine the day of their destruction. His plan was stymied through the intervention of Esther, Ahasuerus's beautiful Jewish queen, who, guided by her uncle Mordecai, persuaded the king to save the Jews and execute the evil Haman in their place. Having triumphed over their enemies, the Jews of Persia engaged in "days of feasting and joy," and it is this spirit of merrymaking that characterizes the celebration of Purim to this day when the Scroll of Esther is read in the synagogue. Congregants may follow the text in their own scrolls, which may be lavishly decorated.
The elaborate engraved borders of this scroll are the work of the Jewish artist Salom Italia, born into a family of printers in Mantua. When the Austrians invaded Mantua in 1630, Jews were forced from the city, and Salom Italia probably went to the Venetian States before settling in Amsterdam in 1641. There he found a prospering community of Jews with the means as well as the inclination to commission and collect the works of a young printmaker.
This scroll was printed from one engraving plate consisting of four arches, which was repeated five times to produce a large arcade as a frame for the text; above, each arch is crowned by a broken pediment surmounted by lions. Below are Dutch cityscapes that reflect the influence of Italia's new home. Figures from the Purim story stand flanking the arches: King Ahasuerus facing Queen Esther, and Mordecai facing Haman. Below each figure is a scene from the story, each printed from a separate plate, forming a narrative cycle of nineteen images. The only exception to this composition is the first panel, which consists of naturalistically rendered peacocks and other birds, and an empty cartouche intended to frame the blessings recited before reading the scroll. On the lip of the vase of flowers on the right, Salom Italia signed his name in Hebrew. The squirrel to the right is an element from the insignia used in Mantua by his family.
Salom Italia's great innovation and contribution to the design of Esther scrolls was setting the text within portals derived from triumphal arches. The practice of conducting triumphal processions through arches dates back to ancient Rome, and the building of temporary arches to honor rulers as they entered a city continued in Europe until the nineteenth century. By the sixteenth century, the triumphal entries of monarchs were commemorated by the publication of their iconographic programs, complete with woodcuts or engravings of the temporary arches and decorations specially created for these events.
In 1642, shortly after Italia's arrival in Amsterdam, the city mounted a magnificent triumphal entry for the stadtholder Frederik Hendrik and his in-laws, the English royal family. Italia may also have been influenced by designs for the 1638 entry of Marie de' Medici into Amsterdam (published in 1639)-for example, an arch surmounted by lions with columns similar to the ones on this scroll. Italia's figures flanking the arches stand beneath festoons of fruit suspended from masks, which appeared in the decorations for a triumphal entry into Lisbon in 1619 (published in Madrid, 1622). By using imagery from a variety of printed sources, Salom Italia achieved a perfect marriage of form and content, since the Book of Esther recounts the triumph of the Jews of Persia and includes an account of Mordecai's triumphal procession through the streets of Shushan, the capital. This episode was depicted by Rembrandt in an etching that was made in Amsterdam around 1641 and was probably known to Italia.
The original owners of this scroll would have understood the reference to triumphal entries in the decorative program. As they unrolled the scroll to follow the text, revealing one arch at a time, they would have been symbolically passing through each portal, thereby reenacting the triumph of Mordecai and of all Jews that is at the heart of the celebration of Purim.