Esther’s new incarnation

A scroll of an ancient story with a modern punch is reproduced down to the fingerprints
Esther’s new incarnation
Photographs by Jessica Darmanin

At 6.5 m wide when fully unfurled, with over 200 illustrations, many in rich colour, the manuscript in the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Library in Hanover, Germany, is an object of beguiling and still mysterious beauty. It is a megillat Esther, the Biblical book of Esther in traditional scroll form, of the sort read aloud to congregations during the Jewish festival of Purim. Its date of origin—1746—has always been known, thanks to the comments of a scholar who saw it soon after it arrived in the library. But the scroll’s creator was unknown (until recently), it is more lavishly illustrated than most Esther scrolls and, most strikingly, the story is in German, not Hebrew, using text from a Christian Bible.

The allure of the Hanover scroll, both as art and as puzzle, made it a clear choice for the first facsimile scroll ever created by Taschen. The German art-book publisher’s reproduction is exquisitely exact, right down to every creased fold and thumbprint on the original. Taschen is launching its edition—1,746 copies at $700 each—this month in various European cities, New York and Toronto. Emile Schrijver, curator of Amsterdam’s Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana, one of the world’s great collections of early modern Jewish writing, and co-author of Taschen’s Esther Scroll, will deliver a talk about it April 16 at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Jewish Studies. Schrijver feels both pulls. “I will speak about how I was able to identify the author,” he says in an interview, “but also how we should understand so unusual an object, a beautiful Jewish religious book in a Gentile language.”

The uncertainties surrounding The Esther Scroll mirror the contrary reactions evoked by the larger story of Esther. Whether taken as a historical account of how a brave Jewish woman turned the tables on a plot to exterminate all the Jews in the ancient Persian empire or, as most scholars think, a historical romance, Esther has always been among the most contentious of Biblical books.

What made Esther suitable for rich illustration (and, thus, prized copies) almost killed it at birth: it is the only scriptural prose book without explicit mention of God. For that reason it almost failed to make the cut when the early rabbis were hammering out the canon of the Tanakh, the Jewish Bible, 2,000 years ago. But it was saved by the popularity of Purim, perhaps the most carnival-like festival of an often austere faith. “It’s such a great story,” laughs Schrijver, “with its central role in a festival when even the ancient sages said you’re supposed to get so drunk you can’t tell the difference when people are yelling,‘cursed be Haman [the villain], ’ or, ‘blessed be Mordecai [the hero].’ ”

Early Christians loved the story too, seeing in Queen Esther interceding with her lord, King Ahasuerus, for the lives of her people, a prefiguration of the Virgin Mary interceding with her son for the souls of the faithful. That only started to change in Victorian times when early feminists began to reject Esther and her womanly wiles to exalt another figure in the story, Queen Vashti. (The king’s previous wife had lost her position and been replaced by Esther, after Vashti refused to display herself—presumably naked—for Ahasuerus’s male guests at a drinking party.) Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, called Vashti’s defiance the “first stand for woman’s rights.”

Victorian Christians and assimilated Jews also began to look with disdain on the story’s final outcome—not only did Esther’s intercession swing the king’s favour to her people, it permitted them to slaughter 75,000 non-Jews. That melted away after the Holocaust, when Esther—a triumphant story of salvation for a persecuted people—regained its robust political resonance. After the Nuremberg war crimes trials, religious Jews found echoes of Purim in the execution, by hanging, of 10 top Nazis, just as in Esther the 10 sons of the evil Haman are hanged. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was making a more secular realpolitik point in 2012 when he presented U.S. President Barack Obama with an Esther scroll—the point being, according to Jerusalem media, that Israel, like Esther, had no need of divine (read American) intervention in order to foil Iranian plans for Jewish genocide.

But Esther’s tangled modern history lay far ahead of Wolf Lieb Katz Poppers, the Jewish scribe and artist whom Schrijver has identified as the creator of The Esther Scroll. He lived during the story’s sweet spot, when both Jews and Christians loved it unreservedly, and no one thought Esther was a Stepford wife. Its cross-religious appeal would have made it a suitable gift for a Gentile lord, Schrijver judges, which was probably its purpose—hence the German and Christian text—along with a side effect of showcasing Jewish art.

Poppers may have been in a hurry to make it, or—as Schrijver believes—he was more artisan than artist. His illustration of Queen Esther looks remarkably like popular depictions of Austrian empress Maria Theresa, but his depiction of Mordecai, the hero who refuses to bow down to Haman, has caused puzzlement over the centuries. For a Jewish illustrator, it should be a moment of pride to capture; instead, Poppers has Mordecai considering a range of suicide methods while being egged on by a devil. Did Poppers have his doubts about the wisdom of Mordecai’s refusal? “I have thought a lot about what that illustration meant, but then I learned he was copying from a book about fools,” says the curator. “This was the illustration for the Despairing Fool—you know, sometimes we tend to over-interpret.”

But Poppers also displays flashes of originality, as he did in Schrijver’s favourite depiction. No illustrated Esther scroll could avoid including one of the story’s high points, when the king orders Haman to lead Mordecai, mounted on a horse, through the streets to receive the accolades of the people. Here Poppers came up with something quite out of the ordinary, Schrijver says. He hit on “the idea of making the only partially coloured illustration in the scroll: just the two men are coloured.” It makes the scene stand out brilliantly, Poppers’s finest moment in his gorgeous creation.