These four panels once formed part of a predella, the lowest part of an altarpiece. Together they tell the story of the life of John the Baptist, the prophet who preached the coming of Christ as the Messiah.
Events run from left to right like a comic strip. At the far left edge was a scene showing John’s birth, followed by his departure into the wilderness and then the baptism of Christ – the main event in John’s life. Another panel, which may have shown John preaching in the wilderness, would have followed, but this did not enter the National Gallery’s collection with the other panels and we don't know where it is now. The final scene shows the saint after his execution.
The predella was probably part of an polyptych (a multi-panelled altarpiece) made by Giovanni di Paolo for the Augustinian church in Cortona.
These four panels once formed part of a predella of a polyptych (a multi-panelled altarpiece). Together they tell us about the life of Saint John the Baptist, with each scene representing a different significant story. Although the scenes were painted on a continuous piece of wood, after the altarpiece was dismantled the predella was cut into individual panels.
The scenes were arranged in chronological order from left to right. At the far left edge was John’s birth, followed by his departure into the wilderness, then the baptism of Christ – the main event in John’s life. This would have been followed by a scene which may have depicted John preaching in the wilderness, to match his departure for the wilderness, but it did not enter our collection with the other panels and its whereabouts is unknown. The final scene shows the saint after his execution, his head on a platter. Some of the scenes were separated by borders painted with a floral design but this only survives on one of our panels.
Predella panels usually celebrated the life of one or more of the saints shown on the main part of the altarpiece. We don‘t know for sure which altarpiece this predella was made for, but one suggestion is a polyptych showing the Virgin and Child with saints by Giovanni di Paolo (now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). One of the saints is Augustine, so it may have been made for the church of an Augustinian friary. The presence of John the Baptist on the main altarpiece – he stands at the Virgin’s right side, the most honourable position – and the predella with scenes from his life mean that it was most likely placed on an altar in a chapel dedicated to him.
Giovanni di Paolo made a number of works for Augustinian patrons in and around Siena. This altarpiece might have been in the church of Sant’Agostino (Saint Augustine) in Siena, where a chapel dedicated to John the Baptist was founded in 1439, but the New York altarpiece came from a private collection of works mainly from Cortona. The Augustinian church in Cortona was being rebuilt in the 1430s, and in the 1450s a man called Zaccaria di Matteo degli Bencivenni left money in his will for the construction of a chapel dedicated to John the Baptist. It’s possible that the altarpiece was made for that chapel; it would explain the prominence of Saint Zacharias, Zaccaria di Matteo degli Bencivenni’s patron saint, in the first panel showing the birth and naming of John the Baptist.
Giovanni di Paolo often reused his designs for pictures. These panels are very similar to another, more extensive, series of pictures painted with scenes from John the Baptist’s life, which are now housed in collections all over the world. They are almost identical to our panels; they differ only in scale and format (they are larger and have a vertical – tall and narrow – shape) and in certain small details, such as the figures' gestures. They were probably painted after our panels but they show how once the artist had found a satisfactory design, he was happy to reuse it for a different commission.