Andrea Meldolla was born in Dalmatia, c. 1510, which was at this time under Venetian jurisdiction. Although he was of Italian descent, the nickname “Schiavone” refers to Andrea’s Slavic origins. Schiavone was living in Venice by the late 1530s. However, facts about the artist, and documented works by him, are scant.
Schiavone is best known for his mythological and pastoral subjects. He generally worked on small-scale works for private patrons, in a colourful, painterly style. Connoisseurs especially admired Schiavone for his lively handling of paint, speed of execution, and lack of finish.
This pair of paintings was intended to decorate a cassone (marriage chest). Decorated marriage chests, which were used to hold the bride’s trousseau, were popular in Italy from the 14th to 16th centuries. Together, the two panels form a continuous narrative. The subject matter is taken from the Old Testament Book of Esther. The panels detail the story of Ahasuerus, King of Persia (d. 465 BC), and his struggle to find the perfect wife. They emphasise the importance of traditional gender roles within marital relationships.
In the third year of his reign, King Ahasuerus held numerous celebrations for the nobility of his kingdom, at his palace in Shushan. The celebrations culminated with an elaborate banquet for all the inhabitants of Shushan, the capital of the Persian Empire. On the night of the feast, the king sent for his queen, Vashti, to appear in her regal attire before his guests and to display her beauty to them. The possession of a beautiful wife would further enhance the king’s glory. But Vashti refused to appear. The king was furious with Vashti’s disregard for his authority. Her disobedient behaviour was humiliating and offensive to Ahasuerus, and was seen to set a bad example to other Persian women.
Ahasuerus sought counsel from the wisest of his princes who all agreed that Vashti should be banished from the kingdom, and that a new queen should be chosen to replace her. On the left-hand side of the panel, Schiavone has painted King Ahasuerus seated on his throne, surrounded by his counsellors. All the men appear to be engaged in discussion, as they decide the fate of Queen Vashti. Vashti is shown standing on the right-hand side of the panel, surrounded by three attendant maids. She stands proudly, upright with her arms outstretched, as if she is ready to embrace her new life beyond the palace walls. Interestingly, all the women appear sympathetic to Queen Vashti. One of the maids weeps at her departure, whilst another attends to the train of her dress, as if trying to preserve her mistress’s sense of dignity.