Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Saint Nicholas Providing Dowries

Bicci di Lorenzo (Italian, Florence 1373–1452 Florence)
Tempera and gold on wood
12 x 22 1/4 in. (30.5 x 56.5 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Coudert Brothers, 1888
Accession Number:
Not on view
In the top scene, Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (270–343)—the original "Saint Nick"—is shown throwing three balls of gold through a window, providing the dowry of three poverty-stricken maidens. In the other painting he resuscitates three youths who had been pickled by an innkeeper during a famine (a story treated by Benjamin Britten in his 1948 cantata, Saint Nicholas).

The panels formed the base (predella) of an altarpiece painted between 1433 and 1435 for a monastery in Florence. Their design was based on an altarpiece by Gentile da Fabriano of 1425.

This panel and a second in The Met (16.121) show scenes from the life of Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (270–343 A.D.), whose relics were transferred in 1087 from Myra following its conquest by the Saracens to Bari, in southern Italy. They are from the predella of an altarpiece that may be reconstructed almost in its entirety (Zeri 1958 and Chiodo 2000; see Additional Images, fig. 1). At the center was a Madonna and Child (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Parma; 171 x 81.7 cm), flanked on the left by Saints Benedict and Nicholas (Museo del Monumento Nazionale della Badia Greca, Grottaferrata; 115 x 75 cm) and on the right by Saints John the Baptist and Matthew (The Met, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975.1.68; 123.5 x 73.7 cm). The predella seems to have had seven scenes arranged in the following order: The Birth of Saint Nicholas (sold, Sotheby’s, London, July 8, 2009, lot 1; 30.5 x 35.5 cm); The Miracle of a Child Restored to his Parents (sold, Christie’s, London, July 9, 2003, lot 75; cut down, 31.2 x 26.8 cm); Saint Nicholas Providing Dowries (The Met); Saint Nicholas Rescuing Sailors in a Storm (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; 29 x 59 cm); Saint Nicholas Resuscitating Three Youths (The Met); an unidentified, missing scene; and A Miracle at the Tomb of Saint Nicholas (Wawel State Collections, Kraków; 31.5 x 37 cm). Each of the predella panels was framed as an oblong quatrefoil, doubtless with gilt pastiglia work between them (the pastiglia was removed; the gilt stucco on the Sotheby’s and Kraków panels was possibly applied at the time of the dismemberment of the altarpiece and its dispersal in Parma; the spandrels of the panels in the Metropolitan and Ashmolean have been filled and painted). The three longer scenes divided between the MMA and the Ashmolean were placed beneath the main register, while the narrower scenes decorated the width and front face of the base of the pilasters that framed the main panels. Eight figures of saints have been proposed as coming from these pilasters. All are on panels shaped, again, like oblong quatrefoils, and on two of the panels is found the same gilt stucco on the two narrow scenes (Chiodo 2000). There would, additionally, have been pinnacles, possibly of the four doctors of the Church: a Saint Jerome (Museo Civico Amedeo Lia, La Spezia, 43.5 x 33 cm) and a Saint Augustine (art market) have been proposed (De Marchi 1997 and Chiodo 2000).

The altarpiece was described by Giuseppe Richa (1758) when it was still in the church of San Niccolò in Cafaggio in Florence (the site is now occupied by the Accademia): "A door, well-designed, above which, in a lunette of the arch is a fresco of Saint Nicholas by Lorenzo di Bicci, as well as, by the same painter, a painting done on wood at the head of the tribune that shows Mary with her child and, at the sides, Saints John the Baptist, Matthew, Nicholas, and Benedict" (una porta di buon disegno, sopra la quale in una lunetta dell’Arco un S. Niccolò a fresco di mano di Lorenzo di Bicci, siccome del medesimo Pittore è il quadro nella testate della Tribuna dipinto sull’asse, e che rappresenta Maria col suo Bambino, ed a’lati i Santi Gio:Batista, Matteo, Niccolò, e Benedetto). That the Madonna and Child in Parma—key to the reconstruction—is the work Richa saw is proved by an inscription on its reverse stating that it came from the suppressed church of San Niccolò, which was Benedictine. It was acquired in 1787 by Alfonso Tacoli Canacci together with other elements of the altarpiece; the predella panels in Oxford and Kraków were still owned by Tacoli in 1790–92 (Merlini 1997). The panel with the Madonna and Child is inscribed with the date 1433, which agrees with the date of a document published by Cohn (1959, doc. V, p. 67) that records payment to Bicci di Lorenzo (the son of Lorenzo di Bicci, whence Richa’s error) and his partner Stefano d’Antonio di Vanni for "an altarpiece and tabernacle and the base and the curtain and the gold and colors necessary for said altarpiece." The work was valued at 145 florins by Fra Angelico, Rosello di Jacopo Franchi, and Antonio Ridolfi. On the basis of the documented participation of Stefano d’Antonio, Cohn attempted to distinguish the respective contributions of the two artists, but the style throughout is uniform and a division of hands seems unwise.

Bicci was not an artist of notable originality. One wonders whose decision it was to use as a model Gentile da Fabriano’s altarpiece of 1425 then in the church of San Niccolò Oltr’Arno (the main panels are now in the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence; the predella is divided between the Pinacoteca Vaticana and the National Gallery of Art, Washington). Perhaps the Benedictine nuns. Not only the scenes in the predella but the composition of the Madonna and Child is closely patterned on Gentile’s altarpiece, though it is rendered without any of that artist’s sophistication, quality of observation, and refinement of execution.

The subject of the first of the two scenes in the MMA is found in the Golden Legend, where we read that Nicholas was born to rich but pious parents and when still young heard that an impoverished father was thinking of prostituting his three daughters to make a living. The saint threw gold, usually shown as gold balls, through the window, thus providing dowries. The second scene is based on popular legend and has a variety of iterations found in songs throughout Europe (in 1948 Benjamin Britten included the episode in his cantata "Saint Nicholas"). An innkeeper (sometimes a butcher) lured three children into his house. He then slaughtered, butchered, and pickled them in a barrel. Informed of the deed in a dream, Saint Nicholas stopped by the inn and resurrected the three boys from the barrel. Bicci shows the scene as taking place in an inn—as had Gentile da Fabriano. The inn signs bear the identifying marks merchants applied to their goods (see the examples in Gertrude Randolph Branlette Richards, Florentine Merchants in the Age of the Medici, Cambridge, 1932).

[Keith Christiansen 2012]
monastery of San Niccolò in Cafaggio, Florence (until about 1783); ?marchese Alfonso Tacoli Canacci, Parma (from 1787); Mme d'Oliviera, Florence (until 1887)
Corning, N.Y. Corning Museum of Glass. "A Century of Toys," December 4, 1956–January 27, 1957, no catalogue?

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Florentine Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum," June 15–August 15, 1971, no catalogue.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Saints and Their Legends," March 1–June 6, 1974, exh. brochure.

Fabriano. Spedale di Santa Maria del Buon Gesù. "Gentile da Fabriano e l'altro Rinascimento," April 21–July 23, 2006, no. VI.13a.

Giuseppe Richa. Notizie istoriche delle chiese fiorentine. Vol. 7, Florence, 1758, p. 35, records an altarpiece in San Niccolò in Cafaggio representing the Madonna and Child flanked by Saints John the Baptist, Matthew, Nicholas, and Benedict, attributing it to Lorenzo di Bicci.

Mary Logan Berenson. "Opere inedite di Bicci di Lorenzo." Rassegna d'arte 15 (1915), pp. 210–11, ill. opp. p. 209, attributes the MMA panels to Bicci di Lorenzo, associating them with the Madonna and Child from the San Niccolò in Cafaggio altarpiece (Galleria Nazionale, Parma), and noting Bicci's dependence on Gentile da Fabriano's Quaratesi altarpiece.

B[ryson]. B[urroughs]. "A Miracle of Saint Nicholas by Bicci di Lorenzo." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 11 (November 1916), pp. 237–38, says the MMA panels are from the predella of Bicci's 1433 altarpiece, wrongly recording the provenance as a monastery church of San Niccolò at Parma.

Raimond van Marle. The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting. Vol. 9, Late Gothic Painting in Tuscany. The Hague, 1927, pp. 16–18, fig. 9, calls the MMA panels and the scene of Saint Nicholas Rebuking the Tempest (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) part of the predella from the same altarpiece as the Parma Madonna.

M[ario]. S[almi]. in Enciclopedia italiana di scienze, lettere ed arti. Vol. 6, [Rome], 1930, p. 973, reconstructs the altarpiece, identifying two paintings in the Pinacoteca Stuard, Parma, as the side panels that originally flanked the Parma Madonna.

Bernhard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Oxford, 1932, p. 85, lists the MMA panels as by Bicci.

Antonino Santangelo. Inventario degli oggetti d'arte d'Italia. Vol. 3, Provincia di Parma. Rome, 1934, p. 119, considers the two Stuard panels the wings of the San Niccolò in Cafaggio altarpiece, but observes that the saints represented do not correspond to Richa's description [see Ref. 1758].

Bernhard Berenson. Pitture italiane del rinascimento. Milan, 1936, p. 73.

A[rmando]. O[ttaviano]. Quintavalle. La Regia Galleria di Parma. Rome, 1939, p. 168, under no. 456, accepts the reconstruction of the altarpiece that includes the Stuard panels.

Harry B. Wehle. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Italian, Spanish, and Byzantine Paintings. New York, 1940, pp. 22–23, ill.

Walter Paatz and Elisabeth Paatz. Die Kirchen von Florenz. Vol. 4, Frankfurt am Main, 1952, pp. 389, 391 n. 19, identify the MMA and Oxford panels as from the predella of the San Niccolò in Cafaggio altarpiece, stating that the side panels are either lost or may be the paintings in the Pinacoteca Stuard.

Richard Krautheimer in collaboration with Trude Krautheimer-Hess. Lorenzo Ghiberti. Princeton, 1956, p. 259 n. 12.

Federico Zeri. "Una precisazione su Bicci di Lorenzo." Paragone 9, no. 105 (1958), pp. 67–71, fig. 45, rejects the connection to the Stuard panels; reconstructs the altarpiece with the Parma Madonna at the center, flanked on the left by Saints Benedict and Nicholas (Museo del Monumento Nazionale della Badia Greca, Grottaferrata) and on the right by Saints John the Baptist and Matthew (MMA, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975.1.68); adds to the predella another panel showing a Miracle of Saint Nicholas of Bari (sale, Christie's, London, July 9, 2003, no. 75 [see Ref.]).

M. Michalska. Studye do Dziejów Wawelu. Vol. 2, 1959, pp. 39ff. [see Ref. Zeri and Gardner 1971], accepts the reconstruction of the altarpiece suggested by Zeri and adds to the predella the scene of Pilgrims at Saint Nicholas' Tomb (Wawel Castle, Kraków).

W. Cohn. "Maestri sconosciuti del Quattrocento fiorentino." Bollettino d'arte 44 (January–March 1959), pp. 61–62, 68 n. 2, accepts Zeri's reconstruction [see Ref. 1958], but identifies the figure on the right of the Lehman painting as Saint John the Evangelist; publishes documents indicating the collaboration of Stefano di Antonio in the execution of the altarpiece (Florence, Archivio di Stato, Convento di San Niccolò Maggiore, vol. 4, c. 1v); attributes 88.3.89, the Parma Madonna, and the Lehman painting to Bicci, assigning this work and the Grottaferrata painting to Stefano di Antonio.

La Peinture italienne des XIVe et XVe siècles. Exh. cat., Musée National de Cracovie. Kraków, 1961, p. 48, under no. 26.

Bernard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: Florentine School. London, 1963, vol. 1, p. 30, tentatively connects the MMA and Oxford panels to the Parma Madonna.

Federico Zeri with the assistance of Elizabeth E. Gardner. Italian Paintings: A Catalogue of the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Florentine School. New York, 1971, pp. 69–71, ill., describe the predella as including the MMA, Oxford, and Kraków panels as well as a scene of the Birth of Saint Nicholas (private collection); identify the saint on the right of the Lehman painting as John the Evangelist .

Burton B. Fredericksen and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth-Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972, pp. 29, 436, 605.

Le choix de l'amateur. Exh. cat., Galerie Heim. Paris, 1974, unpaginated, under no. 5, believes the predella was composed of the MMA and Oxford panels, the Birth of Saint Nicholas (then in the Galerie Heim, Paris), and another scene from the life of the saint in a private collection in New York; identifies the saint on the right of the Lehman painting as Thomas .

Federico Zeri. Italian Paintings in the Walters Art Gallery. Baltimore, 1976, vol. 1, p. 33, discusses Bicci's partnership with Stefano di Antonio, noting that they worked together on the altarpiece for San Niccolò in Cafaggio .

Christopher Lloyd. A Catalogue of the Earlier Italian Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum. Oxford, 1977, pp. 32–34, repeats Zeri and Gardner's [see Ref. 1971] reconstruction of the predella; mentions a letter of February 12, 1972 in which Zeri revises his 1958 reconstruction [see Ref.] by calling the panel showing a Miracle of Saint of Nicholas part of a different altarpiece.

Michael D. Taylor. "Gentile da Fabriano, St. Nicholas, and an Iconography of Shame." Journal of Family History 7 (Winter 1982), p. 328.

Francesca Petrucci in La pittura in Italia: il Quattrocento. Ed. Federico Zeri. revised and expanded ed. [Milan], 1987, p. 585, repeats Zeri's 1958 [see Ref.] reconstruction of the predella.

John Pope-Hennessy assisted by Laurence B. Kanter in The Robert Lehman Collection. Vol. 1, Italian Paintings. New York, 1987, p. 173, under no. 73.

Adam S. Labuda in Opus Sacrum. Ed. Józef Grabski. Exh. cat., Royal Castle, Warsaw. Vienna, 1990, pp. 48–49.

Bruno Santi in The Dictionary of Art. Ed. Jane Turner. Vol. 4, New York, 1996, p. 31.

Maria Merlini in Galleria Nazionale di Parma. Ed. Lucia Fornari Schianchi. Vol. 1, Catalogo delle opere dall'Antico al Cinquecento. Milan, 1997, pp. 68–69, records the history of the center panel of the altarpiece upon its sale to Alfonso Tacoli Canacci.

Andrea G. De Marchi in La Spezia, Museo Civico Amedeo Lia: Dipinti. Cinisello Balsamo (Milan), 1997, pp. 64, 66, fig. f, associates two figures of prophets as pinnacles to the altarpiece as well as two figures of Saint Mary of Egypt and the Archangel Michael as elements from the pilasters.

Sonia Chiodo. "Osservazioni su due polittici di Bicci di Lorenzo." Arte cristiana 88 (July–August 2000), pp. 270–72, 276, 280 nn. 21, 25, fig. 2, proposes a reconstruction of the polyptych (fig. 13).

Old Master Pictures. Christie's, London. July 9, 2003, p. 136, under no. 75, ill., accepts Zeri's 1958 [see Ref.] reconstruction of the predella.

Keith Christiansen et al. in Gentile da Fabriano and the Other Renaissance. Ed. Laura Laureati and Lorenza Mochi Onori. Exh. cat., Spedale di Santa Maria del Buon Gesù, Fabriano. Milan, 2006, pp. 288–89, no. VI.13a, ill. (color) [Italian ed., "Gentile da Fabriano e l'altro Rinascimento"].

Jacqueline Marie Musacchio. Art, Marriage, & Family in the Florentine Renaissance Palace. New Haven, 2008, p. 17, fig. 7.

Guido Cornini in Beato Angelico: L'alba del Rinascimento. Ed. Alessandro Zuccari et al. Exh. cat., Musei Capitolini, Rome. Milan, 2009, p. 202, under no. 24.

The Barbara Piasecka Johnson Collection: Renaissance & Baroque Masterworks. Sotheby's, London. July 8, 2009, p. 10, under no. 1.

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