Thursday, 4 June 2015

Poor, patient Griselda and Portia of Venice

Since last autumn, I have been studying Renaissance art, and as the final part of the course I had to choose an art work to research and write about.

My chosen piece was a set of three panels in the National Gallery, London, painted by the Master of the Story of Griselda.  The three panels are thought to date from 1494 and made as wall decorations (spalliere), commissioned for the double wedding of two Spannocchi brothers in Siena, Italy.

In brief, the story of Griselda, is of a poor girl who after being chosen by a wealthy marquis as his bride, is tested, quite cruelly, before he decides she is the perfect woman for him and they (supposedly) live happily ever after.  

Poor Griselda goes from rags to nothing (literally), before being presented by a beautiful set of robes as befits any marquis' bride in the late fifteenth century.  This is depicted in the centre of the first panel (titled Marriage - NG912) by the Master of Story of Griselda.  

In Renaissance art you are supposed to tell a lot about a person by their clothes - and this is particularly important in the story of Griselda.  One of the themes of Griselda is that whatever she wears, her peasant gown, just a shift, or her red silk and gold embroidered wedding gown, she remains the same - virtuous, patient and obedient, ie for the time, the "perfect" woman.  (The debates about the rights and wrongs of this are still endlessly discussed seven hundred years since the story was first written down.)

One of the things I was thinking, while I was looking at this image daily, was how would such a dress look in real life.  Three days after handing in my final essay, I got a better idea, when I went to a performance of the Merchant of Venice at The Globe Theatre in London.  Portia came on first in a gown of black and gold, and later in red and gold - not very different from that of Griselda.  Even in the drizzle it shone and sparkled - it would have been dazzling in candlelight.

To see the full panels in their entirety you can see them on the gallery website, but they are better seen in person.

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