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Beheading of Saint James the Great: Predella Panel
Fra Filippo Lippi and workshop
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Saint James kneels in prayer; behind him a vigorous executioner raises his sword. James the Great was the first of Christ’s apostles to die for his faith, being put to death by King Herod Agrippa in Jerusalem in AD 44.

This is one of five scenes from the predella, the bottom tier, of the Pistoia Santa Trinità Altarpiece, painted for a confraternity of priests in Pistoia in the late fifteenth century. The altarpiece was begun by Pesellino and completed by Fra Filippo Lippi and his workshop after Pesellino’s death.

The underdrawing (the preliminary outlining of a composition) of these scenes is hugely detailed, and it seems likely that Lippi did the designs but left the painting of some of the panels to his assistants.

Key facts
Artist Fra Filippo Lippi and workshop
Artist dates born about 1406; died 1469
Full title Beheading of Saint James the Great: Predella Panel
Group The Pistoia Santa Trinità Altarpiece
Date made 1455-60
Medium and support Egg tempera, tempera grassa and oil on wood
Dimensions 27.5 x 38 cm
Acquisition credit Presented by Mr and Mrs Felix M. Warburg through the Art Fund, 1937
Inventory number NG4868.2
Location in Gallery Room 59
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The Pistoia Santa Trinità Altarpiece

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This large altarpiece – one of the few in the National Gallery which is almost complete – has had an eventful life. It was commissioned in 1455 from the Florentine painter Francesco Pesellino, and is his only surviving documented work. He died in 1457 and it was finished by Fra Filippo Lippi and his workshop. We know a lot about how and why it was made from the records of the confraternity who commissioned it.

From 1465 it sat on the high altar of the church of the Holy Trinity at Pistoia, but in 1793 the confraternity was suppressed and the altarpiece was taken apart, with the main panel sawn into pieces, and dispersed. Most of it was gradually acquired by the National Gallery and the altarpiece reassembled.

This is the earliest pala (an altarpiece with a single main panel) in the National Gallery.