Saint John the Baptist – who, according to the Bible, wandered the desert preaching about Jesus – is shown in the centre of this panel. He carries a scroll with his declaration of the coming of Christ: ‘I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness. Prepare the way of the Lord’. He stands between Saint John the Evangelist and Saint James, who clutches a pilgrim’s staff. Nardo has contrasted the saints‘ simplicity with the lavish textile – dotted with carnations, vine tendrils and birds – on which they stand.
The picture was made for a ’hospital church' in Florence – that is, a church connected to a hospital – dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. The hospital was, in this case, run by the Knights Hospitaller, a religious order with a military function and a tradition of caring for the sick. They were also known as the Knights of Saint John after their patron saint.
Saint John the Baptist – who, according to the Bible, wandered the desert preaching about Jesus – is shown in the centre of this panel. The camel-skin tunic he wears beneath his pink robes identifies him, as does the scroll bearing his declaration of the coming of Christ: ‘I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness. Prepare the way of the Lord.’ He stands between Saint John the Evangelist, who holds a book, and the apostle Saint James, who holds a pilgrim’s staff.
Nardo has contrasted the simplicity and solidity of the saints‘ figures with an attention to decorative details, which are painted meticulously. The saints stand on a lavish red, blue and gold textile dotted with vine tendrils, birds – identified as finches – and carnations. Carnations, also known as dianthus (’flower of God‘), were associated with Christ’s suffering and death: they smell like cloves, which were thought to resemble the nails used at the Crucifixion. The textile has been painted using the sgraffito technique, in which an area is covered in gold leaf and then red paint, which is scratched away in areas to reveal the designs. Some parts are given extra detail using deep blue ultramarine paint, a very expensive pigment.
When the National Gallery bought the picture in 1858 it was described as having come from the ’hospital church‘ – a church connected to a hospital – of Santi Giovanni e Niccolò in Florence. At the time the picture was made the church had a different name and was dedicated to Saint John the Baptist – explaining his prominence in the panel, and the absence of Saint Nicholas. The hospital was run by the Knights Hospitaller, a religious order that had a military function and also a tradition of caring for the sick. The order was also known as the Knights of Saint John because of their patron saint.
The altarpiece was most likely paid for by the Benini family, who had founded the church. In his will, Bindo di Lapo Benini had left the church to the Knights in accordance with the wishes of his brother, who had been the prior of the Knights Hospitaller in Pisa. Saint James was probably chosen to honour to their father, Lapo (short for Jacopo, the Italian for James).
The saints were originally separated by twisting colonettes (small columns). Saints John the Baptist and James are on the same panel, which is unusual: saints were normally painted on separate panels. The figures are all full length, of equal size – and therefore importance – and stand on the same piece of fabric. This represents a transition between the traditional polyptych and the single-panel altarpiece known as a pala, which became the standard form in the sixteenth century. Pala altarpieces showed sacra conversazione (’holy conversations'), where saints occupy the same spatial setting as though they are speaking with one another. The tops of the panel have been cut down and may have been pointed originally. There were probably additional pinnacle panels, now lost, on top of this section.
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