“And she put it [the head of Holofernes] in her bag of meat: so they twain went together according to their custom unto prayer: and when they passed the camp, they compassed the valley, and went up the mountain of Bethulia, and came to the gates thereof.
Then said Judith afar off, to the watchmen at the gate, ‘Open, open now the gate: God, even our God, is with us, to shew his power yet in Jerusalem, and his forces against the enemy, as he hath even done this day.’”
The soldiers of the garrison are astonished as they open the gates to the city (which the artist has kindly labeled “Betulia” to make the subject absolutely unmistakable), and the final route of the Assyrian army is shown to the right.
As cassoni were generally commissioned in pairs to commemorate a marriage, the choice of subject may seem somewhat odd. Indeed, as noted, the story of Judith is rarely portrayed, but it is not unique; there was another panel in the collection of Artaud de Montor1. The depiction of Old Testament and Apocryphal heroines, however, was not uncommon, and clearly their stories were meant to remind the viewer of their virtues: the stories of Susanna, the Queen of Sheba and Esther were all painted2.
Paolo Schiavo enrolled in the painter’s guild in Florence, the Arte dei Medici e Speziali, in 1429, when he was already over thirty years of age. He was a relatively versatile artist, painting not only the usual altarpieces, devotional works, and frescoes, but he was also a miniaturist and even a designer of embroideries.3 Stylistically he was a follower of Masolino, and continued his style into his later years, although with waning strength. Schiavo painted deschi and other cassoni, including one depicting the Story of Callisto (Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, MA) and the interior lid of a cassone, formerly in the collection of the Getty Museum, Malibu. A cassone of a Battle before a Walled City is still in the collection of the Getty (inv. 70.PB.27), and this has been recently attributed by Everett Fahy to Schiavo. The present panel would appear to date to the 1450's.
We are grateful to Everett Fahy who has seen the present work first hand and has suggested the attribution to the artist.
1 See P. Schubring, Cassoni, Leipzig 1923, illus., plate C.
2 A well preserved cassone by the Sienese artist Giovanni di Paolo depicting the Story of Esther was sold in these rooms on January 5, 2001, lot 21 (sold for $885,750).
3 See A. Padoa Rizzo, "Pittori e miniatori a Firenze nel Quattrocento," Antichità viva, 25 1986, fasc. 5-6 and A. Padoa Rizzo & M.C. Improta "Paolo Schiavo fornitore di disegni per ricami," Rivista dell’Arte, 4th series, V, 1988, pp. 26-56; for a fuller biography as well as a preliminary catalogue of the artist's works, see M. Boskovits, "Ancora su Paolo Schiavo: una scheda biografica e una proposta di catalogo," Arte Cristiana, lxxxiii/770 (1995), pp. 333–40.
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