Within the deep underbelly of the National Gallery in London their lies a little known trio of paintings that tell the tale of the marriage of the dutiful Griselda to the Marquis of Saluzzo. The paintings, from c. 1490, form a group know as the Spalliera Panels and the first part of a set of works illustrating the last story of Giovanni Boccaccio's 'Decameron'.
Unsurprisingly they were made by an artist know today as The Master of the Story of Griselda. The paintings act as a storyboard to deliver a renaissance message of patriarchal submission, loyal steadfast obedience, and a couple in need of some urgent matrimonial guidance. It is a story of wife-testing that seems vastly out of touch with our contemporary, post-feminist, world.
The first of these paintings show the Marquis out on a hunting trip where he spots Griselda, a woman of lower class (the symbolism of hunt is not lost on the viewer). After the encounter he announces to her that she is to marry him on the condition of her relentless acquiescence to him. She dutifully obliges and in front the whole hunting entourage she is stripped bare naked only to be dressed again in a wedding dress of the Marquis’ choosing. The two are married centre stage of the painting.
“Fair Griselda, if I make you my wife, will you do your best endeavor to please me in all things which I shall do or say?”
In the second of the panels the many psychological tests of Griselda begin. First her newly born son and daughter are taken from her at the request of the Marquis and she is informed they are to be executed. Griselda obliges and willingly hands over her children. The Marquis then stages a fake divorce on the grounds that he has found a better woman and has even received papal permission to renounce Griselda. She agrees to leave but before she does she is once again stripped of her outer garments. These indignities she bares without complaint.
“My honorable and gracious lord, dispose of me as you think best for your own dignity and contentment, for I shall therewith be well pleased, as she that knows herself far inferior to the meanest of your people, much less worthy of the honor whereto you liked to advance me.”
The final chapter in this story takes place a few years later and centers around a fictitious second wedding. Griselda is called upon to act as a servant and prepare the house for the arrival of the new bride. In the background the wedding procession arrives complete with the Marquis’ new twelve-year-old bride whom Griselda wishes well (perhaps somewhat sarcastically saying ‘good luck’). The big twist comes when Griselda is informed that the new bride is not a second wife for the Marquis but is in fact Griselda’s now grown up daughter accompanied by her brother. The whole family is reunited and Griselda’s compensation for her trials and obedience is to retake her place as wife of the Marquis; she has, at last, proved herself worthy. They share a rather awkward kiss and everyone lives happily ever after.
The story is about the difficult contradiction in relationships between loyalty and authority, obedience and independence. Originally the story was used as an idealized harmony of devotion between two people; the blissful unity in marriage through the dedication of one woman to a man. We understand it now through modern eyes that the solidarity of two people can never come from ones obedience to another or the dominance of one over another.
Today we see the story of Griselda as a tragedy. A tragedy of a woman’s ordeals at the hands of a man intent on her submission towards him.