This composition relates to the central panel of an altarpiece that Giovanni di Cosimo de' Medici commissioned from Fra Filippo Lippi as a gift for King Alfonso of Naples around 1456. It was completed by 1458 and sent to Naples, where it was received with great satisfaction (see J. Ruda, Fra Filippo Lippi, London, 1993, pp. 194-199 and 442-444). The wings of Lippi's triptych, representing Saint Anthony Abbot and Saint Michael, are preserved in the Cleveland Museum of Art, while the central panel is lost and known only through a drawing by Lippi from 1457 (Archivio di Stato, Florence; ibid., p. 39, pl. 15) and various copies, several of which were painted by the Pseudo-Pier Francesco Fiorentino. The present panel most closely corresponds to an anonymous drawing in the British Museum, London (no. 1860-6-16-4; see ibid., p. 444, pl. 297) that is derived from Lippi's composition, in which the kneeling Virgin similarly appears before a wooden stable.
In 1932, Bernard Berenson identified a core group of paintings that had previously been given to Pier Francesco Fiorentino, a follower of Benozzo Gozzoli and Neri di Bicci, arguing that they were in fact painted by an as yet unidentified artist whom he named the Pseudo-Pier Francesco Fiorentino (Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Florentine School, London, 1963, I, p. 171). Subsequent scholarship has distanced this anonymous artist from the oeuvre of Pier Francesco Fiorentino, clarifying that his works owe a great deal more to Pesellino and Fra Filippo Lippi's paintings from the 1450s, as the present example demonstrates. Noting the strong ties to these two artists, Federico Zeri argued that the works of the Pseudo-Pier Francesco Fiorentino were actually produced by a successful and prolific workshop, which he christened the 'Lippi-Pesellino Imitators' (F. Zeri, Italian Paintings in the Walters Art Gallery, Balitmore, 1976, I, pp. 80-85). The skilled and deliberate tooling of the gilded halos in the present example is highly characteristic of the works produced by Pseudo-Pier Francesco Fiorentino. Notably, the engaged frame appears to be original to the painting, as is the faux-marble pattern on the reverse of the panel.
Signature: Dated '-AN-MCCCCLXXXVI-' (upper right)
PROPERTY OF A LADY
About Pseudo-Pier Francesco Fiorentino
Italian, active ca. 1450-1499