Artist Avner Moriah affectionately calls it a “Ganze Megillah” – his artistic illumination of the Scroll of Esther measuring a whopping 28.03 m. long. In the past year, officials at the Guinness World Records agreed, awarding him the coveted “Officially Amazing” title for the longest megillah scroll ever recorded.
In fact, the only place large enough to hold the official measurement for the Guinness record was the basketball court of the Har Adar community just outside of Jerusalem, where the 68-year-old Moriah resides.
“It is a great honor to hold this Guinness World Record title, and receive recognition by this distinguished international authority which verifies world records,” Moriah said about the award, which he received last April.
Creating this magnum opus took 15 years and reflects thousands of hours of work. Moriah estimates that he applied more than one million brush strokes to create the piece. “This version breathes fresh life into a biblical story that is both ancient and timeless,” he says about his Ganze Megillah (Yiddish for “the whole story”). “It now takes its place in history as the longest in existence.”
He notes that throughout the last two millennia, the biblical Scroll of Esther, the ancient text read in synagogues on the Purim holiday, has often been illuminated with visuals to complement the dramatic story it details. In the early 2000s, he was inspired to add his own artistic interpretation to this ancient tradition, creating four smaller scrolls. He then set out to paint one more version.
There were three elements that Moriah wanted to combine in this piece. The first was the geometric, two-dimensional designs from the Near and Far East which are part of his everyday visual life in Israel. The second was the three-dimensional art of the European Renaissance, which reflects his Western art education and provides the depth for depicting the drama as a play on a stage.
“The third element was spiritual, drawing on Jewish heritage and the biblical text to integrate the artistic elements. All these combined to create a vibrant mosaic of imagery, styles and cultures that tell the story of the ancient Persian court,” he explains.
The Ganze Megillah is composed of 29 sheets of cow parchment, connected with acid-free tape, and is painted with a combination of rich watercolors, gouache paint and gold leaf, as well as silver and copper leaf. The striking calligraphy for the text was executed by artisan Izzy Pludwinsky.
Moriah also added some humorous, personal touches to his megillah scenes, such as including a drawing of his two beloved dogs in the last panel of the scroll. They each flank the thrones on which Ahasuerus and Mordechai sit.
Moriah is now intent on smashing the Guinness World Record for the largest megillah, awarded to Itzhak Shayer of Rishon Lezion in March 2017, which measures 19.59 sq.m.
One could only imagine Queen Esther’s reaction, had she zoomed through time, as the Ganze Megillah was painstakingly unfurled across the basketball court for the official Guinness measuring, held in December 2020. Perhaps she would have preferred to bestow it with a designation more appropriate for royalty: A scroll fit for a queen.
IN THE early years of his artistic career, Moriah – a secular Israeli who holds an MA from Yale University’s School of Art and Architecture, and a BA from the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design – was renowned for his stunning landscapes of Israel.
When his wife became seriously ill in 2001 and needed a bone marrow transplant, Moriah became her primary caretaker. He had little time to paint outdoors. Instead, he spent endless days battling the insidious side effects of his wife’s treatments. His solution was to illustrate classic Jewish texts, which provided him with an artistic outlet during the 10 years that he took care of his wife, who passed away in 2011.
“I had to be steadfast and disciplined during those years. I continued to study and create my art. I stretched my days at both ends to encompass enough hours for painting,” he recalls.
The epic story of Esther is one of many classic Jewish texts to which Moriah has applied his creative brush strokes. Other monumental pieces include his evocative 2004 Moriah Haggadah, which has been praised as a modern masterpiece of Jewish illumination, and his Illuminated Five Books of Moses. At special invitations to the Vatican, he personally presented the Genesis volume to Pope Benedict XVI in 2012, and his Exodus volume to Pope Francis in 2017.
Moriah, who has struggled with dyslexia throughout his life, notes that it is rather ironic that his illuminated biblical texts have been acquired by major libraries and museum collections, including the Library of Congress, Harvard University, Yale University, UCLA, the Jewish Theological Seminary and the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Currently, he is focused on illustrating all five biblical megillot, each distinguished with a different artistic style. He recently published an Illuminated Song of Songs, using only gold and black for his palette. His images of love scenes and fertility symbols reflect a visual lexicon that reaches from the ancient Mediterranean region to India. They are nestled delicately alongside the romantic poetry of the biblical text.
Which megillah is next on his drawing board? The Book of Ruth, he says, which he will dedicate to the Ruth whose love is now a part of his personal odyssey. ■