A Fragile Beauty

Catch a glimpse of a hidden gem of the Rylands Hebrew Manuscripts Collection.

Written by Dr Stefania Silvestri, Researcher Developer, and Dr Buda Zsófia, Research Associate.

In an earlier post about our Esther scrolls, we have briefly mentioned one of our rare treasures: an Esther scroll illustrated with cut-out scenes (Hebrew MS 54). 

Not much is known about this Esther scroll. It was purchased by the Library on the 22nd of October 1915 from the bookseller J.E. Cornish for 10 shillings. After accession the item was kept in a box and almost forgotten. Mendel Metzger, who studied and wrote about several Esther scrolls in the Rylands’ collection, didn’t know of its existence.  

A recent fortuitous conversation alerted us to its uniqueness. There are only few extant examples of megillot with cut-out decoration, and interestingly the Rylands megillah (the biblical book of Esther in a scroll format) is almost identical to three other items held in other collections. These are London, Jewish Museum, JM 284; Amsterdam, Joods Historisch Museum MB02541; and Beth Tzedec Museum, Toronto, Cat. 532 (Roth collection. Gift of Samuel and Israel Shopsowitz). 

Our scroll is made of 3 strips of parchment sewn together, backed by a long strip of purple silk. The text of the book of Esther is inscribed into 22 arches or gate-shape designs and preceded and followed by 2 smaller round panels which include blessings. Each arch and the two round panels are surrounded by a detailed cut-out decoration. This technique is in itself very unusual (read more about it here and have a look at Hebrew MS 45, another item in the Rylands’ collection featuring cut-outs) and, together with the text, points to 18th century Italy as the place of production for the scroll. 

Jacob’s ladder, Jewish marriage contract, Tarcento, 1778; Hebrew MS 45

The scroll is in a dire condition. The first strip of parchment has been severely damaged and only a small part of the decoration is still present. At some point in the past, the silk backing was badly repaired with the use of a small strip of burgundy fabric. In addition, the scroll has been stored tightly rolled and is thus extremely sensitive to handling and unrolling. Due to its fragile state, the digitisation of this beautiful and unique scroll will only be attempted when it is repaired. 

One of the most interesting features is of course the decorative programme of the scroll. The borders around the text columns are filled with narrative scenes and a plethora of floral and faunal motifs. You can find giant flowers, dragons, reptiles, birds, insects, cornucopia, hybrids, and so on.

The narrative scenes are not always easy to identify, and they are not necessarily in direct relationship to the text below or above them. Sometimes, as it is the case in many other Esther scrolls, they are not based on the Book of Esther itself but come from other biblical books. There are also several compositions that seem to be generic hunting scenes.

Hare hunt?, below column 11; Manchester, JRL, Hebrew MS 54.
Bird hunt?, below column 13; Manchester, JRL, Hebrew MS 54.

Biblical scenes: the Book of Esther and beyond

While in the London and Amsterdam scrolls, there are a good few compositions that illustrate the Esther story – just to give you one example, Haman’s ten sons hanged -, in our megillah none of the scenes seem to depict this story for sure. Could the two figures with drums in the first more or less preserved scene over column 4 (Esther 1:18-2:4) show the Persian king Ahasuerus’ messengers disseminating one of his edicts? Perhaps, but it is not at all certain.

Drummers, above column 4; Manchester, JRL, Hebrew MS 54.

The few scenes that could be identified with great certainty are from the Genesis: Jacob’s ladder, Abraham and the three angels, and the Sacrifice of Isaac are relatively easy to spot. Other compositions are less easily identifiable. For instance, could the scene over column 13 (Esther 6:1-9) be Cain and Abel offering sacrifices? Perhaps, but again, we cannot be sure.

Cain and Abel offering sacrifices?, above column 13; Manchester, JRL, Hebrew MS 54.

Let’s not forget however, that our Esther scroll is still waiting to be repaired and many of its scenes are severely damaged.

The Rylands megillah and its siblings

When we have another look at our scroll and compare it to its siblings, the scroll in London and in Amsterdam, we see that the same scenes are located in entirely different sections of the text. (We have not had a chance to see photos of the fourth scroll housed at the Beth Tzedek Museum in Toronto).

One of the first things we can do when trying to identify each composition is to see where the image is located. Where is it on the scroll and what is the accompanying text about? If the image cannot be directly linked to the text, there is still a possibility, that there is a biblical interpretation, a midrash, that would draw parallels between this part of the story of Esther and other biblical stories. In the case of our megillah, I have not yet detected such exegetical connections between images and text.

Abraham and the three angels, above Esther 4:14-5:6 (column 11); Manchester, JRL, Hebrew MS 54.
Abraham and the three angels, above Esther 2:18-3:2 (column 6); London, Jewish Museum, 284. Credit: courtesy of Jewish Museum London.
Abraham and the three angels, above Esther 2:21-3:7 (column 7); Amsterdam, Joods Historisch Museum, MB02541. Credit: Collection Jewish Museum Amsterdam. On loan from Ets Haim – Livraria Montezinos.

Look at, for example, the scene of Abraham and the three angels: the winged creatures are sitting around a table with the forefather prostrating in front of them. In the Rylands scroll it is above Esther 4:14-5:6 (column 11), which talks about Esther’s council with Mordechai, her fasting and getting an audience from the king. In the London and Amsterdam scrolls, the same scene appears two chapters before, above the text that relates how Mordechai overheard the plot against Ahasuerus, and how Mordecai refused to kneel and bow before Haman. So it is likely that the narrative scenes and the texts below them are not directly connected.

In the London scroll, some of the compositions have been used twice. For instance, in our Rylands megillah, Jacob’s ladder is placed above the text relating how Ahasuerus chose Esther from among all the beautiful women who were brought to him (Esther 2:12-20). In the London scroll, the scene appears first above the chapter discussing how Mordechai and Esther learnt about the decree ordering the murder of the Jews (Esther 4:1-10), and then again above the text where Haman and his sons are hanged, and the festival or Purim is established (Esther 9:25-32).

Jacob’s ladder, above Esther 2:12-20 (column 6); Manchester, JRL, Hebrew MS 54
Jacob’s ladder, above Esther 4:1-10 (column 6); London, Jewish Museum, 284. Credit: courtesy of Jewish Museum London.
Jacob’s ladder, above Esther 9:25-32 (column 22); London, Jewish Museum, 284. Credit: courtesy of Jewish Museum London.
Jacob’s ladder, above Esther 9:19-27 (column 20); Amsterdam, Joods Historisch Museum, MB02541. Credit: Collection Jewish Museum Amsterdam. On loan from Ets Haim – Livraria Montezinos.

Have you noticed that one of the compositions in the London scroll is a mirror image of the other?

The relationship between our megillah and the other three scrolls would require an in-depth study, but we can already draw a few conclusions from these examples. First, the scenes may have been randomly placed above the text without any direct link to them, and they do not appear to illustrate them or offer a visual commentary on them. Secondly, the artist or artists of these scrolls must have used models. Interestingly, it has been suggested that the artist(s) that produced the other three scrolls did so by cutting together multiple layers of parchment and so produced an identical design. But the existence of the Rylands scroll and the differences in composition point clearly to a different system of production, yet to be identified. 

A further in-depth study and comparison of the four scrolls is required, and we are hopeful that this will be possible when a full restoration and digitisation project is funded and carried out on the Rylands scroll. 

We hope that this fragile beauty will be soon restored to its former glory. Watch this space for updates.

Further reading 

Metzger, Mendel. “The John Rylands Megillah and Some Other Illustrated Megilloth of the XVth to XVIIth Centuries.” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 45 (1962/63): 157. 

Art and Tradition, Treasures of Jewish Life’, Catalogue of Beth Tzedec Museum, Toronto, No.65, page 71. 

Esther scroll, Braginsky Collection, MS S77

Curator of Global Manuscripts, John Rylands Research Institute and Library, specialised in Hebrew manuscripts, but enthusiastic about all book cultures.

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