We are grateful to Mr. Everett Fahy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, for proposing the attribution to Andrea di Niccolò on the basis of first-hand examination; this was also independently proposed on the basis of a photograph by Professor Alessandro Angelini. The painting is characteristic of the artist at a time when he was strongly influenced by Pietro di Francesco Orioli.
The richly-dressed woman in this picture is an allegorical personification of Fede - Faith - one of the three Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope and Love); we see her richly adorned, turning with devotion to the Madonna. In the background, one can glimpse a Thebaid, a monastic community of hermits who have sought out the desert to pursue a life of ascetic discipline, prayer and meditation. The beauty of the woman and the richness of her garments symbolise the spiritual beauty and wealth of the self-sacrifice and devotion performed by the monks, rewarded by communion with the Madonna, the saints and God. The panel may once have been one of three such works commissioned for a domestic setting, with the other panels presenting Hope and Love, the remaining Virtues.
This painting fascinated Warner, and the question of its subject and attribution commanded his inquisitive energies for some time. Ian Robertson, Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had suggested to him that the female figure might be that of Saint Pelagia seeing a vision of the Madonna, symbolising her conversion (Saint Pelagia had been an Antiochene actress who renounced the world to become a nun). On 9 February 1957, Warner wrote to Berenson inquiring whether the picture was Florentine, noting, 'Perhaps I should explain that I am a country antique dealer, pictures being only very much of a side-line with me, although I am getting increasingly interested in them'. Berenson's reply is recorded in Warner's archive - he had suggested that the work might be between Francesco di Giorgio and Neroccio. Warner's research on the picture, which was kept in his 'Museum' room, stretched over the decades, with new ideas on attribution being recorded in 1978 and 2000, with each preceding suggestion scored out in his notes.