Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: The Story of Griselda. Detail from Part II, Exile
  • Creator: Master of the Story of Griselda
  • Description:

    This spalliere panel is part of a series of paintings depicting the story of Griselda, a folkloric figure made famous in Boccaccio’s Decameron. In the story Gualtieri, a duke, is pressured by his courtiers to take a wife although he is skeptical that any woman can meet his standards. He selects Griselda, a poor but beautiful shepherdess without a dowry and marries her with a lavish procession. She bears him two children, whom he takes away and pretends to have killed, before finally sending Griselda away from the household in disgrace. Eventually, Gualtieri takes her back into his household as a servant as he prepares to remarry. Although Griselda’s former chambermaids comment on her husband’s cruel treatment, she refuses to speak ill of him.

    On the eve of the wedding, Gualtieri reveals that the ordeal was simply an elaborate test of Griselda’s loyalty and that his new bride and her attendant are actually their daughter and son, who have grown up safely with relatives. Having passed the test by remaining unfailingly loyal to her husband, Griselda is restored to her position as duchess and the couple live happily for the rest of their lives. The first panel depicts the duke and Griselda’s first meeting and their wedding procession as he leads her to publicly exchange her ragged clothing for a lavish new gown. Panel II shows Gualtieri handing over the child to a servant (far left), the dissolution of the marriage (center) and Griselda being made to strip and return to her father’s house in only a shift. In the final panel, Griselda attends the supposed wedding banquet in servant’s garb and the children are presented, prompting the revelation of the test.

    The term spalliere (singular spalliera) refers to a wide variety of decorative panel paintings and wall hangings, hung at shoulder (spalla) height or above and used as head or back boards for furniture or wainscoting on walls. Spalliere were generally purchased on the occasion of a marriage, as part of a wealthy man’s preparation for bringing his wife into the house. All the new furnishings represented not only the creation of a private space for the husband and wife, but also the conversion of a bride’s cash dowry into material goods for the couple’s new household. Spalliere were often included on cassoni, the large storage chests built specially to hold a new wife’s trousseau. In wealthy households, decorative items such as spalliere, cassoni and sometimes even the bride’s clothes, were decorated with images and text that alluded to moral traits that were valued in a Renaissance wife.

    The literary story of Griselda was interpreted by many authors-- including Boccacio, Petrarch, and Chaucer-- as a sort of exercise in translation and interpretation, with Griselda’s clothing changes working as a metaphor for the act of retelling. Passed back and forth between male authors in correspondence, the tale was often told with a framing device that contextualized the story as one told by men to men. The choice to include Griselda as the subject of a series of spalliera paintings, however, brings the story explicitly to a female audience and in doing so may reframe the meaning of the story as a moral tale to be emulated.

    Church and state officials had a relatively small role in marriage in late medieval Italy. Rather than be sanctioned by a priest or cleric, a marriage began when the two families agreed and publicized it, first through the release of marriage banns announcing the engagement and then through festivities which included the bride’s procession through public space. Among wealthy families, the exchange of wealth through dowry and counter-dowry was also a critical component of marriage negotiations. The intertwining of finances helped make the connection between families tangible and irrevocable, while also providing for the bride’s basic needs. A dowry then, helped stabilize marriages and gave the wife and her family some degree of leverage. In this context, Griselda’s lack of a dowry can be read as a major destabilizing force in the story, making greater the already stark power imbalance inherent in medieval marriages and putting her entirely at the mercy of her husband. The way Griselda’s naked body is displayed during the wedding procession, in a manner similar to the way the dowry would be shown off to the crowd, implies that the new husband exerts an unusual degree of ownership in this marriage.

    Griselda’s story illustrates the symbolic importance of clothing in late medieval Italy. Over the course of the narrative, each change in Griselda’s status is marked with a change of clothes. Because of the immense amount of labor clothing took to produce and the cost of raw materials, high quality fabric and the clothing made from it was a popular way to store wealth in tangible form, in a way similar to jewelry. One 15th century Florentine mother, Alessandra Strozzi, boasted in a letter about her engaged daughter that “when she goes out, she’ll have more than four hundred florins on her back”. It was common for wealthy husbands to spend a portion of their wife’s dowry on clothing that would be given as a wedding gift, so typically a woman's fine clothing reflected well on her own family’s financial status as well as her husband’s. In the Griselda story, the fact that her husband buys all of her clothes with his own wealth puts her more under his control. Often, clothes commissioned for a bride would incorporate a noble husband’s family colors or symbols. This is true in the spalliere panels, where Griselda is married in a brilliant red and gold gown that matches the duke’s, and the rest of his household wears red, black, white, and gold. Wearing Gualtieri’s clothes displays her new high status, but paradoxically also marks her as his “subject and servant.”

    By law, wedding gifts remained the property of the husband, even if purchased with money from the wife’s dowry. This included clothing. If a wife was sent away or left her husband, therefore, she had no right to keep much of her own clothing. Typically, in the case of divorce, the dowry-- or a portion of it-- was returned to the wife’s family. In the fable, however, Griselda brings no dowry to the marriage except her virginity. Upon her divorce and exile from court, Griselda obviously cannot take this with her, but she symbolically retains her modesty by insisting on returning in a translucent shift, proof of her virtue.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Clothing in Literature Dowries Griselda (literary Figure) Husbands Marriage Spalliere, Painted Panels Wives
  • Geographic Area: Italy
  • Century: 15
  • Date: ca. 1494
  • Related Work: Panel Part I, Marriage;
    Panel Part II, Exile;
    Panel Part III, Reunion
  • Current Location: London, National Gallery, NG912
  • Original Location: Siena
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital images; Paintings
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Wood panel; Oil with some tempera
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 61.6/154.3 (eac of the three panels)/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Baskins, Cristelle L. “Griselda, or the Renaissance Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelor in Tuscan Cassone Painting.” Stanford Italian Review 10, 2 (1991): 153-175;
    Dunkerton, Jill, Carol Christensen and Luke Syson. “The Master of the Story of Griselda and Paintings for Sienese Palaces,” National Gallery Technical Bulletin 27 (2006): 4-71;
    Krueger, Roberta L. “Uncovering Griselda: Christine de Pizan, Une Seule Chemise, and the Clerical Tradition: Boccaccio, Petrarch, Philippe de Mézières and the Ménagier de Paris.” In Medieval Fabrications: Dress, Textiles, Clothwork, and Other Cultural Imaginings, edited by E. Jane Burns. Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Pages 71-88;
    Rossiter, William T. Mutata Veste: Griselda between Boccaccio and Petrarch.” In Chaucer and Petrarch. D. S. Brewer, 2010. Pages 132-160.