This altarpiece is a polyptych (a multi-panelled altarpiece) but parts of it are missing. The two halves were not originally next to each other, but were on either side of a painting of the Assumption of the Virgin formerly in the church of San Giovanni Evangelista, in Pratovecchio, Tuscany.
The whole altarpiece once stood on a side altar in the Camaldolese nunnery of San Giovanni. Very unusually we know quite a lot about its commissioning. In June 1400 one Michele di Antonio Vaggi, a Camaldolese monk, made a will asking his mother Johanna to found a chapel at San Giovanni, for which she was to provide a ‘tavola picta’ (a painted altarpiece).
Both Johanna and Michele’s patron saints appear in the main panels, with Camaldolese saints in the pinnacles. This is presumably the altarpiece made for their family chapel, although it wasn't painted until the 1450s.
This altarpiece is a polyptych (a multi-panelled altarpiece) but parts of it are missing. The two halves were not originally next to each other, but were on either side of a painting of the Assumption of the Virgin formerly in San Giovanni Evangelista, Pratovecchio, Tuscany.
The altarpiece was originally made for the Camaldolese nunnery in Pratovecchio. The Camaldolites were a reformed Italian branch of the Benedictine Order, famous for their strict lifestyle. Monks and nuns lived in hermitages rather than in communal buildings, coming together only to eat and pray.
Renaissance Italian altarpieces came in many shapes and sizes, depending on where they were to be placed and on how much their patrons could pay. A larger polyptych from Pratovecchio is also in our collection: the Ascension of John the Evangelist Altarpiece, made for the high altar in the 1420s.
This altarpiece is smaller and must have been in a side chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary; church rules said that images on altarpieces generally had to reflect the dedication of the altar on which they sat. Very unusually, we know quite a lot about the commissioning of this altarpiece and the intentions of its patrons. A document in the nunnery records that in June 1400 one Michele di Antonio Vaggi, a Camaldolese monk, made a will naming his mother Johanna as his main beneficiary. He asked her to found a chapel at San Giovanni Evangelista, for which she was to provide a ‘tavola picta’ (a painted altarpiece) and other furnishings. Saints Michael and John the Baptist, Michele and Johanna’s patron saints, appear in the main tier of the altarpiece and there are various Camaldolite saints in the pilasters. This must the ‘tavola picta’ made for the family’s chapel, and is one of the few surviving Renaissance altarpieces to have been commissioned by a woman (another is Crivelli’s The Virgin and Child with Saints Francis and Sebastian).
Johanna herself made wills in 1405 and 1415, but possibly lived much longer, as stylistically the altarpiece should be dated to the 1450s. The artist, Jacopo di Antonio, added figures to Giotto’s Badia altarpiece (Uffizi, Florence) in 1451 and died in December 1454. Both Johanna and Michele’s wills were copied into the nunnery’s records in 1440, perhaps after the death of one or the other; presumably the commission for the altarpiece was not put into effect until this point.
We don't know exactly when the altarpiece was split up. The main panel showing the Assumption was still in San Giovanni in 1914, and our panels were there in the early nineteenth century. The nunnery at Pratovecchio had been closed down by 1810, and these panels, along with others from the same church, were in a private collection in Florence by 1845, where they were probably put into their current frame. The frame was regilded in 1858 and it is impossible to tell how much of it is modern and how much medieval. The paint surface is covered with a layer of old, discoloured varnish.