Unrolling the Whole Megilah: 1686 Scroll of Esther of Rephael Montalto

Rochelle Weinstein, Music and Art

Presented by Rochelle Weinstein on May 9, 2011

The 1686 Esther Scroll illustrated by scribe/calligrapher Rephael Montaltowas the focus of Prof. Rochelle Weinstein’s CETLS presentation. Weinstein, Professor of Art and Chairperson of the Department of Music and Art, presented a report on her 2009/2010 sabbatical research. She analyzed Montalto’s sources of imagery for this manuscript of the biblical book of Esther, whose decorated borders incorporate scenes from the narrative, city views, and fantastic Renaissance hybrids of flora and fauna. Prof. Weinstein located the historical/biographical context for Rephael’s pictorial choices within his identity as a Sephardic Jew of Portuguese origin in Amsterdam, the 17th century publishing capital of the world and a haven for free thinkers. His ancestors had fled Iberian inquisitions and received Italian and French protections.  Published sources refer to Rephael’s grandfather Elijah Montalto/Felipe Rodrigues (d.1616 Nantes), physician to Queen Marie de’ Medici of France, and his father Miguel de Luna/Mosseh Montalto (d.1637 Lublin), merchant and physician. But most information, like the scroll, is still unpublished.

The scroll, Spencer Hebrew MS 2, was among 180+ books and manuscripts on view, selected for special attention in brochures and websites of the NYPL exhibit: “Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam,” October 22, 2010 – February 27, 2011. Prof. Weinstein had collaborated on the exhibition texts accompanying the scroll. She used these texts to describe the scroll’s form and function. Read publically during the spring holiday of Purim in the month of Adar, the story is part palace intrigue, and part court romance, commemorating the triumph of Persian Jews over their arch enemy Haman in the fifth century BCE (Before Common Era).

Prof. Weinstein identified the city views along the top border as ports in the trade route of the Portuguese mercantile empire, analogous to the 127 provinces, from India to Ethiopia, controlled by Ahasuerus, King of Persia.  He fell in love with the incognito Jewish heroine of the story, Esther, who had entered his harem in a beauty contest. She became his Queen and, revealing her true identity, was granted power to save her people from Haman’s destructive edict. Prof. Weinstein compared the costumed protagonists standing between the manuscript text columns to commedia dell’arte characters familiar to Sephardic Jews who produced ducal court entertainments and were members of multilingual literary societies. Rephael’s signatures, including his de Luna alias, reveal his activities as witness to trade contracts between his influential relatives and the King of Portugal, and his membership, inherited from his father, in the Sephardic charity dowering Spanish/ Portuguese Jewish orphans.