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.
1 In the days of Ahasu-eʹrus, the Ahasu-eʹrus who reigned from India to Ethiopia over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces, 2in those days when King Ahasu-eʹrus sat on his royal throne in Susa the capital, 3in the third year of his reign he gave a banquet for all his princes and servants, the army chiefs of Persia and Media and the nobles and governors of the provinces being before him, 4while he showed the riches of his royal glory and the splendor and pomp of his majesty for many days, a hundred and eighty days. 5And when these days were completed, the king gave for all the people present in Susa the capital, both great and small, a banquet lasting for seven days, in the court of the garden of the king’s palace. 6There were white cotton curtains and blue hangings caught up with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rings and marble pillars, and also couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl and precious stones. 7Drinks were served in golden goblets, goblets of different kinds, and the royal wine was lavished according to the bounty of the king. 8And drinking was according to the law, no one was compelled; for the king had given orders to all the officials of his palace to do as every man desired. 9Queen Vashti also gave a banquet for the women in the palace which belonged to King Ahasu-eʹrus.
10 On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuʹman, Biztha, Harboʹna, Bigtha and Abagʹtha, Zethar and Carkas, the seven eunuchs who served King Ahasu-eʹrus as chamberlains, 11to bring Queen Vashti before the king with her royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the princes her beauty; for she was fair to behold. 12But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command conveyed by the eunuchs. At this the king was enraged, and his anger burned within him.
13 Then the king said to the wise men who knew the times—for this was the king’s procedure toward all who were versed in law and judgment, 14the men next to him being Carsheʹna, Shethar, Admaʹtha, Tarshish, Meres, Marseʹna, and Memuʹcan, the seven princes of Persia and Media, who saw the king’s face, and sat first in the kingdom—: 15“According to the law, what is to be done to Queen Vashti, because she has not performed the command of King Ahasu-eʹrus conveyed by the eunuchs?” 16Then Memuʹcan said in presence of the king and the princes, “Not only to the king has Queen Vashti done wrong, but also to all the princes and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of King Ahasu-eʹrus. 17For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt upon their husbands, since they will say, ‘King Ahasu-eʹrus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, and she did not come.’ 18This very day the ladies of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen’s behavior will be telling it to all the king’s princes, and there will be contempt and wrath in plenty. 19If it please the king, let a royal order go forth from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes so that it may not be altered, that Vashti is to come no more before King Ahasu-eʹrus; and let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she. 20So when the decree made by the king is proclaimed throughout all his kingdom, vast as it is, all women will give honor to their husbands, high and low.” 21This advice pleased the king and the princes, and the king did as Memuʹcan proposed; 22he sent letters to all the royal provinces, to every province in its own script and to every people in its own language, that every man be lord in his own house and speak according to the language of his people.