Esther, the Jewish queen of the Persian ruler Ahasuerus (Xerxes), provided a template of courage and virtue by saving her countrymen from a plot to kill them. On this front of a chest (cassone) her marriage feast is depicted as though taking place in fifteenth-century Florence. The princes of the land arrive with Ahasuerus, who is also shown beneath the portico marrying Esther and then again saluting her at table. The buildings relate closely to contemporary Florentine architecture. The workshop that produced this panel about 1460–70 was the most prestigious of its kind in the city.
This panel once adorned the front of a cassone, or wedding chest, and depicts the biblical story of the marriage of Esther and the Persian king Ahasuerus (Esther 2:17–19). Esther provided Florentine brides with a template of courage and virtue by saving her Jewish countrymen from a plot to kill them. The painter has transposed the setting of this tale to the streets of contemporary Florence. At left, the king and his ministers ride on lavishly caparisoned horses past an imposing Renaissance palace and a three-aisled Gothic church with a domed apse that may well reflect Leon Battista Alberti’s design for SS. Annunziata in Florence. At right, the wedding and banquet take place in a loggia, a private portico built by patrician families for celebrations and other events. Beneath one arcade the king places a ring on the hand of Esther, watched by an officiating priest. Beneath the other he salutes his bride, who is seated at the wedding banquet. The loggia is set for a lavish feast, complete with a tiered sideboard well stocked with gold serving dishes. A richly patterned, gilded textile decorates the walls of the loggia, which has pilasters at the corners and features classicizing roundels lined with clam shells in the spandrels.
Despite the clearly legible inscription ESTER at the feet of the heroine as she offers her hand in marriage, there were once doubts about the subject of the panel. One of the first scholars of cassoni considered the panel to be a depiction of the story of Dido and Aeneas (Schubring 1915). Another suggested that the inscription was added by an owner rather than by the artist (Burroughs 1919); however, the inscription is original and since 1940 it has been accepted that the subject is indeed the story of Esther.
The architectural setting is used as a narrative device, dividing the story into distinct episodes. This spatial organization is reminiscent of woodcut illustrations in the printed texts of mystery plays, a form of popular theater dating from the late Middle Ages. The plays were performed in public squares or in churches, the scenery consisting of representations of separate buildings before which the action took place. The story of Esther was among the few plays dramatized with a subject from the Old Testament (see Alessandro D'Ancona, Origini del teatro italiano, Turin, 1891, p. 435) and emphasized the importance of virtue in making and maintaining a good marriage (see Alessandro d'Ancona, ed. Sacre rappresentazioni dei secoli XIV, XV, e XVI, Florence, 1872, vol. 1, pp. 129–66).
First documented in a French collection in 1885, this panel was, like several other cassone panels, then attributed to Dello Delli (ca. 1404–1469; see Alexandre 1904), whom Vasari singled out in his 1568 edition of the Lives of the Artists as particularly skilled in painting the kinds of small figures required by cassone panels. The Metropolitan acquired the panel in 1918, but only in 1971 (Zeri and Gardner) was the panel linked to the productive and relatively well-documented workshop of Marco del Buono and Apollonio di Giovanni. It is likely that there was a companion panel with other episodes from Esther's story (Wehle 1940).
[2012; adapted from Krohn 2008]
Inscription: Inscribed (beneath the figure of Esther): ESTER.
Jean Dollfus, Paris (by 1885–d. 1911; his estate sale, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, April 1–2, 1912, no. 53, as "Mariage d'Esther et d'Assuérus," Florentine School, for Fr 32,000 to Wildenstein); [Wildenstein, Paris, 1912–about 1917; sold half share to Kleinberger]; [Kleinberger, New York, about 1917–18; sold to MMA]
Paris. Musée du Louvre. "Tableaux, statues et objets d'art au profit de l'œuvre des orphelins d'Alsace-Lorraine," 1885, no. 118 (as by Dello Delli, lent by M. Dollfus).
New York. F. Kleinberger Galleries. "Italian Primitives," November 12–30, 1917, no. 23 (as by the Cassone Master).
Wooster, Ohio. Josephine Long Wishart Museum of Art. "Exhibition of Paintings of French, Italian, Dutch, Flemish and German Masters, lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art," October 20–December 15, 1944, unnumbered cat. (p. 7).
Richmond. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. "Italian Art: Loss and Survival," October 15–November 16, 1947, no catalogue.
New York. Jewish Museum. "The Hebrew Bible in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Art," February 18–March 24, 1963, no. 110 (as by an unknown Florentine artist).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Florentine Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum," June 15–August 15, 1971, no catalogue.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Art and Love in Renaissance Italy," November 11, 2008–February 16, 2009, no. 57.
Fort Worth. Kimbell Art Museum. "Art and Love in Renaissance Italy," March 15–June 14, 2009, no. 57.
Arsène Alexandre. "La collection de M. Jean Dollfus." Les arts 3 (January and February 1904), ill. pp. 7, 9, attributes it to Dello Delli and identifies the subject as the Marriage of Esther and Ahasuerus.
Henri Frantz. "La curiosité: collections Jean Dollfus (tableaux anciens, objets d'art)." L'art décoratif 27 (May 5, 1912), p. 291, assigns it to the Florentine school and calls it the Marriage of Esther and Ahasuerus; reports that it sold for 32,000 francs in the Dollfus sale.
S[amuel]. Rocheblave. Un grand collectionneur alsacien, Jean Dollfus (1823 à 1911). Strasbourg, 1912, p. 21, ill. p. 11, as the Marriage of Esther and Ahasuerus.
Paul Schubring. Cassoni: Truhen und Truhenbilder der italienischen Frührenaissance. Leipzig, 1915, text vol., p. 266, no. 191; plate vol., pl. XLI, attributes it to the Cassone Master and suggests that the subject is Aeneas and Dido.
Osvald Sirén and Maurice W. Brockwell. Catalogue of a Loan Exhibition of Italian Primitives. Exh. cat., F. Kleinberger Galleries, Inc. New York, 1917, pp. 65–67, no. 23, ill., attribute it to the Cassone Master, date it about 1450, and believe it may show the arrival of Aeneas at Dido's palace; observe that the loggia and palace are drawn from the Palazzo Medici, and that the church may be a free representation of San Piero Scheraggio, Florence, now destroyed.
B[ryson]. B[urroughs]. "Sienese and Florentine Paintings." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 14 (January 1919), pp. 6–8, ill., as Florentine, about 1450; states that the inscription identifying Esther was put there by a previous owner, and considers the subject unknown.
Bryson Burroughs. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Catalogue of Paintings. 6th ed. New York, 1922, pp. 150–51, believes the Medici palace and the cathedral and campanile of Florence are represented.
Harry B. Wehle. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Italian, Spanish, and Byzantine Paintings. New York, 1940, pp. 41–42, ill., calls it the Story of Esther and identifies the scenes depicted: the coming of the princes to the king's feast, Esther and her maidens feasting in the house of the women, Mordecai listening at the king's gate, and the marriage of Esther and Ahasuerus; attributes it to the unknown Florentine painter called the Cassone Master or the Virgil Master, after the Virgil Codex in the Biblioteca Riccardiana, Florence, and dates it to the third quarter of the fifteenth century; notes that there was probably a companion cassone with other episodes from the life of Esther.
Millia Davenport. The Book of Costume. New York, 1948, vol. 1, p. 261, no. 732, ill. p. 262.
Federico Zeri with the assistance of Elizabeth E. Gardner. Italian Paintings: A Catalogue of the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Florentine School. New York, 1971, pp. 101–2, ill., attribute it to Marco del Buono and Apollonio di Giovanni, identified as the artists in charge of the shop that produced works earlier attributed to the Cassone Master or Virgil Master; note the influence of Pesellino and Domenico Veneziano.
Burton B. Fredericksen and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth-Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972, pp. 12, 262, 606.
Ellen Callmann. Apollonio di Giovanni. Oxford, 1974, pp. 42, 66, no. 31, pls. 161, 245, 254 (overall and details), calls it "one of the shop's finest works but not by Apollonio"; believes that it depicts the feast prepared by Esther for Haman and Ahasuerus rather than Esther feasting in the house of women [see Ref. Wehle 1940].
John Pope-Hennessy and Keith Christiansen. "Secular Painting in 15th-Century Tuscany: Birth Trays, Cassone Panels, and Portraits." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 38 (Summer 1980), pp. 13, 16, 24–27, 64, ill. inside front and back covers (color details), figs. 18–20 (overall and color details), date it about 1460–70; state that it shows episodes from Esther 2:17–18 and note that the buildings resemble the architecture of Michelozzo, comparing the palace to the Palazzo Medici and the church to the Santissima Annunziata.
Bruce Cole. The Renaissance Artist at Work: From Pisano to Titian. New York, 1983, p. 160, fig. 83, attributes it to the shop of Apollonio di Giovanni and dates it about 1460.
Brenda Preyer. "The 'chasa overo palagio' of Alberto di Zanobi: A Florentine Palace of About 1400 and Its Later Remodeling." Art Bulletin 65 (September 1983), p. 392, fig. 10.
Maria Sframeli inLe tems revient, 'l tempo si rinuova: feste e spettacoli nella Firenze di Lorenzo il Magnifico. Ed. Paola Ventrone. Exh. cat., Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence. [Milan], 1992, p. 165, no. 219, ill. (color).
Maria Sframeli inMaestri e botteghe: pittura a Firenze alla fine del Quattrocento. Ed. Mina Gregori et al. Exh. cat., Palazzo Strozzi, Florence. Milan, 1992, p. 90, as probably from the same workshop as a drawing (Biblioteca Marucelliana, Florence) and a cassone (in the annulled sale of Palazzo Serristori, Florence, announced by Sotheby Park Bernet Italia s.r.l., May 9, 1977, lot 21, considered a fake by Everett Fahy) showing the Story of Griselda from the "Decameron"; erroneously states that it illustrates the same story and refers to it as formerly with Wildenstein, Paris, not realizing that it belongs to the MMA.
Graham Hughes. Renaissance Cassoni, Masterpieces of Early Italian Art: Painted Marriage Chests 1400–1550. Alfriston, England, 1997, pp. 225, 232, ill. p. 57 (color detail).
Deborah L. Krohn inArt and Love in Renaissance Italy. Ed. Andrea Bayer. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2008, pp. 12, 63, 109, 129, 133–34, 298, no. 57, fig. 2 (color detail), ill. pp. 134–35 (color), dates it 1460–70; likens the spatial organization to that of illustrations in the printed texts of mystery plays, adding that the story of Esther is one of the few Old Testament subjects known to have been performed.
Caroline Campbell. Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence: The Courtauld Wedding Chests. Exh. cat., Courtauld Gallery. London, 2009, p. 24, fig. 8 (color).
Renaissance. Christie's, New York. January 30, 2013, p. 86, under no. 127.
The frame is from southern Spain and dates to about 1600 (see Additional Images, figs. 1–3). This cassetta or box frame is made of pine and is water gilded and carved in the Herrera style with brightly colored painted and glazed detail. The sight edge molding is ornamented in rusticated dentals with red background next to egg and dart running out of reel centers. The flat plate is punctuated by a row of both diamond shaped jewel-like lozenges with colored glazes and rosettes decorated with polychrome sgraffito, a scratched paint technique. A row of simple dentals with blue background runs before the knulling and cabled fluting which ornament the top edge. Though having some insect damage and slightly reduced in size to accommodate this painted panel, the frame retains its original gilding and vivid paint decoration.
[Timothy Newbery with Cynthia Moyer 2015; further information on this frame can be found in the Department of European Paintings files]