Life of the Young Tobias by Francesco Granacci [attrib.]

Francesco Granacci [attrib.]

Life of the Young Tobias, 1535, Oil on panel, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Photo: PRISMA ARCHIVO / Alamy Stock Photo

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A Virtuous Wife

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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 (see elsewhere 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).

 

References

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


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