This is the first in a set of two spalliera panels representing the Story of Tobias, attributed in the past to the Florentine painters Francesco Granacci and Giuliano Bugiardini. Spalliera panels were usually inserted into wainscoting or placed in the backboards of wedding chests (cassoni).
This panel illustrates the story of Tobias from his departure from Nineveh to the third day after his wedding. The events narrated in Tobit 8 are represented under the third arch of the building on the right. As in the north-transept façade of Chartres Cathedral (also in this exhibition), Tobias and Sarah are portrayed praying by their bed, whilst in the foreground we see Raphael restraining Asmodeus next to a vessel with burning coals. But we also see here, peeking through a door, the chambermaid sent by Sarah’s mother to check on the newlyweds (8:15).
Wealthy Florentine families usually purchased spalliere on the occasion of a wedding to decorate the new couple’s bedroom. The subjects depicted on spalliere often featured virtuous heroines, mainly from the Bible and classical legends (they included Judith, Esther, Lucretia, and Cornelia), who could serve as role models to a young wife.
Sarah was one such role model, as we discover in the Regola della vita matrimoniale, a manual written for young wives by the Franciscan friar Cherubino da Spoleto (1414–84). The Regola was published in Florence in 1477 and rapidly became a best seller. In the Regola, Sarah is recurrently referred to as a virtuous wife. Moreover, the author states that her seven husbands were ‘suffocated by the devil’ because of their libidinous inclinations.
The statement occurs at the beginning of a long section describing—quite explicitly—the sexual practices a young wife should avoid in order not to fall into mortal sin. It is also relevant in relation to this painting that Tobias and Sarah’s three days of prayer and sexual abstinence after their wedding were invoked as an example to follow by newlyweds, first in ecumenical legislation and later in penitential literature (Santyves 1934).
Musacchio, Jaqueline. 2008. Art, Marriage, and Family in the Florentine Renaissance Palace (New Haven: Yale University Press)
Saintyves, Pierre. 1934. ‘Les trois nuits de Tobie’, Revue anthropologique, 44: 266–96
8 When they had finished eating, they escorted Tobiʹas in to her. 2As he went he remembered the words of Raphael, and he took the live ashes of incense and put the heart and liver of the fish upon them and made a smoke. 3And when the demon smelled the odor he fled to the remotest parts of Egypt, and the angel bound him. 4When the door was shut and the two were alone, Tobiʹas got up from the bed and said, “Sister, get up, and let us pray that the Lord may have mercy upon us.” 5And Tobiʹas began to pray,
“Blessed art thou, O God of our fathers,
and blessed be thy holy and glorious name for ever.
Let the heavens and all thy creatures bless thee.
6Thou madest Adam and gavest him Eve his wife
as a helper and support.
From them the race of mankind has sprung.
Thou didst say, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone;
let us make a helper for him like himself.’
7And now, O Lord, I am not taking this sister of mine because of lust, but with sincerity. Grant that I may find mercy and may grow old together with her.” 8And she said with him, “Amen.” 9Then they both went to sleep for the night.
But Ragʹuel arose and went and dug a grave, 10with the thought, “Perhaps he too will die.” 11Then Ragʹuel went into his house 12and said to his wife Edna, “Send one of the maids to see whether he is alive; and if he is not, let us bury him without any one knowing about it.” 13So the maid opened the door and went in, and found them both asleep. 14And she came out and told them that he was alive. 15Then Ragʹuel blessed God and said,
“Blessed art thou, O God, with every pure and holy blessing.
Let thy saints and all thy creatures bless thee;
let all thy angels and thy chosen people bless thee for ever.
16Blessed art thou, because thou hast made me glad.
It has not happened to me as I expected;
but thou hast treated us according to thy great mercy.
17Blessed art thou, because thou hast had compassion on two only children.
Show them mercy, O Lord;
and bring their lives to fulfilment in health and happiness and mercy.”
18Then he ordered his servants to fill in the grave.
19 After this he gave a wedding feast for them which lasted fourteen days. 20And before the days of the feast were over, Ragʹuel declared by oath to Tobiʹas that he should not leave until the fourteen days of the wedding feast were ended, 21that then he should take half of Ragʹuel’s property and return in safety to his father, and that the rest would be his “when my wife and I die.”