The attribution of this cassone panel has been the subject of scholarly research for a number of years. It was listed in Frederico Zeri's photographic archive as 'anonymous Florentine' and was subsequently given to Giovanni di ser Giovanni Guidi, called Scheggia, the younger brother of Masaccio, by Everett Fahy, when it was sold in these Rooms, 5th July 1985, lot 69. Fahy made this attribution on the basis of photographs, however, he was able to reconsider his earlier view when he examined the picture in the original in 2007, and concluded that it was a work by Paolo Schiavo. In particular he likened it to another cassone panel, of The return of Judith to Bethulia, and the route of the Jews defeating the Assyrians, sold at Sotheby's, New York, 25 January 2007, lot 30, which was also attributed in full to Schiavo. These two panels are undoubtedly by the same hand, but recent research by Dr. Lorenzo Sbaraglio has thrown new light on their authorship. He regards these panels as part of a group of related works, mostly cassone panels, all executed by the same cofanaio (or cassone-painter), whom he identifies as the Maestro dell'Epifania di Santa Felicita, so-called after the eponymous altarpiece in the Church of Santa Felicita in Florence (see fig.1); an attribution that is also supported by Professor Andrea de Marchi. In the light of this research the present work is offered with this recently identified attribution, and we are grateful to Everett Fahy, Professor Andrea de Marchi and Dr. Lorenzo Sbaraglio for their assistance in cataloguing this lot.
The subject of the Emperor Trajan and his encounter with a widow was popular in the Middle Ages and demonstrated the Emperor's sense of Justice that so endeared him to a Christian audience. It was recounted in The Golden Legend, which describes how Trajan, while making preparations for the Dacian Wars, was petitioned by a widow who sought justice for her murdered son. Trajan replied that he would deal with the matter on his return, but the widow persisted and asked what would happen if he did not return. Trajan was so moved by her pleas that he settled the case on the spot by giving up his own son to her. Five centuries later this story so moved Pope Gregory the Great (c. 540-604) that he prayed for the pagan Emperor's soul. His prayers were answered and Trajan's soul was thereby released and raised to Heaven. The story was also popularised by Dante, who describes it in Purgatorio, Book X, lines 73-94. In the present work we see the widow on the right mourning over the body of her murdered son, a well-dressed youth, presumably the murderer, is seen fleeing on his horse at the far right. In the centre of the composition the widow appears again, this time imploring the mounted figure of the Emperor Trajan, who is departing from a walled city with his army. The richly-caparisoned horses in decorated gold leaf, the lively, somewhat square faces of the Emperor's retinue and the sharply receding perspective of the town walls are all typical of this master's style.