The allegorical figure of Hope is seen gazing heavenward; her hands in prayer while an anchor (stability) rests behind her. This clearly echoes both Esther and Mordechai’s underlying emotion as the Megillah unfolds. The Hebrew cartouche proclaims, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart” (Proverbs 3:5). The allegory of Faith utilizes a profoundly Jewish image of a man holding an Italian sefer Torah seated before an elephant with the Hebrew quote from Proverbs 28:20, “A faithful man will have many blessings.” It is found over the terrifying text in which Haman dictates the total destruction of the Jews in the letters sent to all the king’s provinces (Esther 12 – 14). Finally, the allegory of Mercy, a woman holding a cedar branch flanked by a pelican piercing its own breast to feed its chicks is above the Hebrew, “He caused them also to be pitied” (Psalms 106:46). This is directly above the passage in which King Ahasuerus gives Haman’s house to Esther, a clear act of mercy (Esther 8:1).
What is remarkable throughout this beautiful Megillah is the seamless integration of European secular symbolism with biblical narrative and wisdom. Ripa’s allegories allowed the timeless tale of Esther to feel fully contemporary and relevant to the world of 18th century Italian Jews.
The exhibition of the Steinhardt Collection at Sotheby’s is a landmark event for many reasons, not the least of which is that it is a special opportunity to examine those pieces of Judaica that have over the centuries operated as a bridge between the larger European culture and Jewish ideas and values. In a curious way, much like Steinhardt’s Birthright Program, this exhibition explores the cultural heritage that is our birthright as compelling as the Land of Israel.