The story of Purim is recounted in the Biblical Book of Esther: "Mordecai recorded these events. And he sent dispatches to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Ahasverus, near and far, charging them to observe the 14th and 15th day of Adar, every year - the same days on which the Jews enjoyed relief from their foes and the same month which had been transformed for them from one of grief and mourning to one of festive joy. They were to observe them as days of feasting and merrymaking, and as an occasion for sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor (Esther 9:20-22)."
The reading of the megillah, the Scroll of Esther, in the synagogue, is the central event of the Purim holiday. Written by hand in columns on joined vellum or parchment sheets, the scroll is usually rolled on a handle and kept in an ornamented wood, metal or cloth case. Some scrolls begin with tabs inscribed with family emblems, decorations, or the blessings recited before the megillah reading. The latter are often written on a separate parchment sheet. The columns of script are surrounded by printed or hand-made ornamentation and illustrations of pen or brush and ink, woodcut or etching, paint or cutout. Although most decorated Esther scrolls have architectural motifs like arches and pillars, various styles characterize different countries: the North African megillot are ornamented with vegetation, birds, and interlacements; the Persian and Iraqi with inscriptions and flowers (cat. nos. 191-192), and the Polish and other European scrolls with figures, birds, imaginary beasts, grotesques, and vegetation. In Italian scrolls of the 16th and 17th centuries, there are delicate, intricate interlacements. In those from 17th-18th century Italy, Germany, and The Netherlands, each column of text is accompanied by an illustration. In their totality, these illustrations tell the entire Purim story in pictures.
The megillah story was illustrated in early Bibles, but manuscript illumination reached its peak in the Renaissance period. With the invention of printing in the second half of the 15th century, scribes continued hand-writing Torah scrolls, phylacteries (tefillin), mezuzot, and megillot in accordance with Jewish law, but the tradition of the manuscript illustrator declined. Illustrations accompanying the text of the rolled megillah scroll are known from only a few examples from early 16th-century Italy. In the 17th century, megillot began to be illustrated with woodcuts, copperplate engravings and etchings that had appeared in early printed works. In the 18th century with the revival of the illustrated manuscript art, a unique artistic phenomenon that is notably Jewish in origin see Passover Haggadah, (cat. no. 196), Esther scrolls illustrations were printed and mainly painted in great numbers.
Most of the artists illustrating megillah scrolls were fine calligraphers, well-versed in Scripture, tradition, and Commentaries. The plot of the Book of Esther, its literary structure, its adaptation as a Purim drama and the fact that it is written in columns, enabled the artists to depict the story in terms of scenes in a play, adding ornamentation, figures and landscapes. Artists in Alsace, Germany, and Central and Eastern Europe decorated and illustrated their megillah scrolls with luminous, rich colors. However, the art of manuscript illustration and ornamentation declined toward the beginning of the 19th century.
Two rolled scrolls from Italy are probably among the earliest having illustrations with the megillah story. One from late-16th or early-17th-century Venice has folk-style sepia drawings, as in a Commedia dell'Arte satire with all its set types and effects, together with genre scenes of Purim celebrations and gift-giving (in a private collection, see Benjamin Chaya, "An illustrated Venetian Esther scroll and the Commedia dell'Arte," Israel Museum Journal, 14 (1978), pp. 50-9.)
The second megillah, from Ferrara (1616), was colorfully decorated by Moshe ben Abraham of Pescarol for Mordecai ben Eliahu ha-Levi of Brissilo. The illustrations depict the Purim story enacted in an Italian setting, complete with contemporary dress, interiors, and cityscape (in the collection of the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem). The few scrolls with engraved illustrations by artist Shalom Italia of 17th century Amsterdam (in the Israel Museum) served as a prototype for European megilot. With slight variations, decorative patterns popular throughout Europe, and copperplate etchings for the Esther scroll by 18th-century Italian artist Grisellini, also served as an inspiration for the decoration of a large body of scrolls in Italy, The Netherlands and Germany (cat. no. 188).
The artist Aaron Wolf Herlingen, who came to Vienna from Moravia (1710-1757) and was appointed scribe of the Royal Library, lavishly illustrated an Esther scroll with miniature vignettes (cat. no. 185). Scrolls with sepia drawings were done by numerous artists with slight variations (cat. no. 186). Among the first artists is Arie Leib son of Daniel, whose signature is found on scrolls from 1746-1748. He came from Poland and lived for varying periods in Venice and Brissilo. The signature of Abraham son of Yehoshua Ottolenghi of Acqui appears on a similarly decorated page of blessings for the reading of the megillah of 1773.