Queen Vashti Leaving the Royal Palace, fragment of a Florentine cassone with the Scenes with the Story of Esther by Filippino Lippi

Filippino Lippi

Queen Vashti Leaving the Royal Palace, fragment of a Florentine cassone with the Scenes with the Story of Esther, c.1480, Oil on panel, 48.5 x 43 cm, Museo Horne, Florence, inv.417, Photo: Scala / Art Resource, NY

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What Price Dignity?

Commentary by

This intriguing painting forms one end of a Florentine wedding cassone, a decorated wooden chest that would have contained the dowry of a bride entering marriage in the Renaissance period. These marriages were often arranged around strategic political and financial alliances.

Here, we find Vashti banished from the city, standing outside the imposing, fortress-like city gate of Susa—the setting of the biblical narrative. Filippino Lippi’s painting imagines this scene in his own Italian context: a fortified Renaissance city in the Tuscan landscape. In front of Vashti lies the vast kingdom that reaches ‘from India to Ethiopia’ (Esther 1:1), but here all the cultural exoticism that description in the text might conjure to a Western European imagination is rendered bleak, uninhabited, and inhospitable. This is certainly not a vista anyone wants to find themselves facing alone. This was precisely the didactic message of the painting; indeed, the choice of this story for this wedding chest, often presented as a gift from the parents of those being married, implied that the consequences of the bride’s disobedience to her husband might be similar to those of Vashti: ejection from the home and possibly even the city.

Vashti finds herself, in the shadow of the city walls, alone, ostracized, and vulnerable stepping out onto a threshold: a little moat bridge. She is stretching out her left arm as she tentatively steps forward into an uncertain future.

Of course, the text does not mention what happens to Vashti after the king deposes her; is she banished from the city or is she relegated to his harem never to be called forth again? This panel, however, leaves the bride in no doubt about Vashti’s fate. Vashti holds the centre of the composition, adorned in luxurious fabrics (textiles would have formed a key part of a dowry).

Paradoxically, there is a sense of metamorphosis about her dignified posture and gesture, her stepping forth from this cloak, shedding the role of objectified queen almost like a skin, her green dress suggestive that new life is possible, despite all.