This charming picture seems to have been painted in Fra Angelico's workshop in about 1440. It is the center of a predella of an altarpiece and can be associated with several other panels with scenes from the lives of various saints.
The earliest record of this enchanting work is in 1872. It was long ascribed to Fra Angelico and has been recognized as forming part of the predella to an altarpiece. Davies (1961) suggested that it might be associated with a panel showing the Adoration of the Magi in the National Gallery, London (no. 582), as well as two other panels in the Museo di San Marco, Florence, but as parts of a single predella. The two panels in San Marco are now almost universally ascribed to Angelico as the predella of an altarpiece of the Coronation of the Virgin in the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence (see Gordon 2003; and Serena Nocentini in Beato Angelico: l’alba del Rinascimento. Exh. cat., Rome, 2009, p. 178). By contrast, Boskovits and Christiansen (1984) proposed associating the Nativity with three other panels of hermit saints, also ascribed to Fra Angelico or someone from his circle (Musée Royal des Beaux-Arts, Antwerp; Musée Condé, Chantilly; and Musée Thomas Henry, Cherbourg). This suggestion also proved wrong, for it is now firmly established that those three works are fragments of a single panel showing a Thebaide (see Michel Laclotte, "Autour de Fra Angelico: deux puzzles," in Francesca Pasut and Johannes Tripps, eds., Da Giotto a Botticelli: pittura fiorentina tra Gotico e Rinascimento, Florence, 2008, pp. 187–200). Gordon (2003) made a fundamental step towards a solution by recognizing that the New York and London panels were the only two that could be shown to belong together as parts of a predella. She ascribed both to Zanobi Strozzi—a pupil of Angelico and a leading painter of manuscript illuminations. She noted that the Adoration of the Magi imitates Angelico’s style of the 1430s. Following on this suggestion, Kanter (2005) has proposed that the Metropolitan and National Gallery panels can be associated with a triptych by Zanobi Strozzi consisting of a Madonna and Child (State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg) with, on the left, Saints Nicholas, Lawrence, and John the Baptist (Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, New York), and, on the right, Saints Zenobius, Francis, and Anthony of Padua (Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven; see Additional Images, fig. 1). The presence of two Franciscans indicates that the altarpiece was painted for a church associated with that order in Florence (Saint Zenobius is the patron saint of the city). The Nativity would have been the center element of the predella, which may have had as its third panel a scene of the Marriage of the Virgin or the Annunciation.
As Gordon noted, the flower-strewn meadow in the Adoration of the Magi is typical of Zanobi Strozzi’s decorative style, and so, too, are richly pastel-colored garments worn by the angels that form an arc over the stable in the Nativity. Kanter suggests a date in the late 1430s and does not exclude the possibility that Angelico had a hand in the design and possibly even the execution of the altarpiece.
[Keith Christiansen 2012]
?[Metzger, Florence, until 1872]; Georg (II), Herzog von Saxe-Meiningen, Meiningen, Thuringia (1872–d. 1914); Bernhard (III), Herzog von Saxe-Meiningen, Meiningen (1914–d. 1928); Ernst, Prinz von Saxe-Meiningen, Herzog von Sachsen, Meiningen (1928–d. 1941); by descent to Rut Martha Viererbe, Baronin von Saalfeld, later Schnell (until 1961; sale, Sotheby's, London, June 14, 1961, no. 100, as by Fra Angelico, for £9,000); [Carlo Sestieri, Rome, 1961–62]; Mr. and Mrs. Nathaniel P. Hill, Newport, R.I. (from 1962); [Acquavella, New York, until 1963; sold to King]; May Dougherty Carr, later King, Corpus Christi, Texas (1963–83)
Munich. Julius Böhler. "Meisterwerke alter Kunst," Summer 1958, no. 2 (as by Fra Angelico, lent by Prinz Ernst von Sachsen-Meiningen).
South Texas Artmobile. 1969, no catalogue?
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Exceptional Acquisitions, 1983–1984," May 8–September 2, 1984, no catalogue.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Fra Angelico," October 26, 2005–January 29, 2006, no. 44C (as by Zanobi Strozzi and Fra Angelico [?]).
G[iovanni]. B[attista]. Cavalcaselle and J[oseph]. A[rcher]. Crowe. Storia della pittura in Italia. Vol. 3, 2nd ed. Florence, 1899, p. 327, tentatively attribute it to Lorenzo Monaco, stating that it recalls the style of Fra Angelico
J[oseph]. A[rcher]. Crowe and G[iovanni]. B[attista]. Cavalcaselle. A History of Painting in Italy: Umbria, Florence and Siena from the Second to the Sixteenth Century. Ed. Langton Douglas. Vol. 2, Giotto and the Giottesques. repr. 1923. London, 1903, p. 301.
Osvald Sirén. Don Lorenzo Monaco. Strasbourg, 1905, p. 160, attributes it to Fra Angelico.
G[eorg]. Voss. Bau- und Kunst-Denkmäler Thüringens. Vol. 34, Herzogthum Sachsen-Meiningen. Jena, Germany, 1909, pp. 165–66, attributes it to Fra Angelico.
P. Innocenz M. Strunk. Fra Angelico aus dem Dominikanerorden. Mönchengladbach, 1916, pp. 129–30, suggests that it might be an early work by Fra Angelico.
Frida Schottmüller. Fra Angelico da Fiesole. 2nd ed. Stuttgart, 1924, p. 260, ill. p. 93.
Raimond van Marle. The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting. Vol. 10, The Renaissance Painters of Florence in the 15th Century. The Hague, 1928, pp. 92–93, attributes it to Fra Angelico and dates it before the frescoes in the Convento di San Marco, Florence.
Roberto Longhi. Letter to Carlo Sestieri. December 6, 1961, attributes it to Fra Angelico and dates it 1425–30, shortly after the altarpiece in the church of San Domenico, Fiesole.
Martin Davies. The Earlier Italian Schools. 2nd ed., rev. London, 1961, p. 32, under no. 582, observes that it is about the same size as the Adoration of the Magi in the National Gallery, London, and the Marriage of the Virgin and Death of the Virgin in San Marco, Florence, stating that "some or all of these may perhaps be thought to have come originally from the same altarpiece".
Mario Salmi. Letter to Carlo Sestieri. January 31, 1962, attributes it to Fra Angelico and dates it about 1434–36.
Federico Zeri. Letter to Mrs. Natheniel P. Hill. May 25, 1962, attributes it to Fra Angelico.
Umberto Baldini inL'opera completa dell'Angelico. Milan, 1970, p. 117, no. 135, lists it among other works attributed to Fra Angelico.
Keith Christiansen inThe Metropolitan Museum of Art: Notable Acquisitions, 1983–1984. New York, 1984, pp. 61–62, ill. (color), attributes it to the workshop of Fra Angelico and dates it about 1440; considers it probably the center scene of a predella and associates it with panels depicting the Temptation of Saint Anthony (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston), Saint Romuald Appearing to the Emperor Otto III (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp), Saint Benedict in Ecstasy (Musée Condé, Chantilly), and the Penitence of Saint Julian(?) (Musée Thomas Henry, Cherbourg).
Miklós Boskovits. Letter to Keith Christiansen. February 18, 1984, states that it "could go with the Antwerp-Chantilly-Cherbourg series, stylistically at least".
Dillian Gordon. The Fifteenth Century: Italian Paintings. Vol. 1, London, 2003, pp. 422, 424 nn. 4–5, 7, under no. NG 582, fig. 1 (color), as Attributed to Zanobi Strozzi; states that it is almost certainly from the same predella as the Adoration in London [see Ref. Davies 1961] which she dates about 1433–34.
Carl Brandon Strehlke. Italian Paintings 1250–1450 in the John G. Johnson Collection and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Philadelphia, 2004, p. 59.
Laurence Kanter inFra Angelico. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2005, pp. 242–45, no. 44C, ill. p. 244 (color) and fig. 145 (color, reconstruction), states that it formed the center of a predella with the London panel at right, and identifies the central panel of the altarpiece as a Madonna and Child Enthroned (State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg), which was flanked by panels depicting Saints John the Baptist, Lawrence, and Nicholas of Bari (Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, N.Y.) and Saints Zenobius, Francis, and Anthony of Padua (Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven); states that although the patron and original location of the altarpiece are unknown, it must have been painted for a Franciscan church in Florence; dates the altarpiece to the late 1430s or about 1440 and attributes it to Zanobi Strozzi, possibly with some intervention from Fra Angelico.