Lorenzo di Bicci was born in Florence around 1350 and may have lived into the second decade of the 15th century. His name is first registered in the Florentine painters' guild in 1370 and his earliest documented work is a panel of Saint Martin Enthroned now in the Depositi Gallery, Florence, which dates to shortly after April 1380 and was painted for the Florentine guild of wine merchants, the Arte dei Vinattieri. He continues to appear in archival documents from Florence until 1410. The surviving records that mention Lorenzo provide a rich depiction of what life was like for a typical fourteenth-century artist in Italy. He was paid not only for independently commissioned paintings, but for work on major decorative campaigns, such as that of the Florence Cathedral, valuations of other art objects, drawn designs for projects in different media throughout the city, and the embellishment of pre-existing works with gold and enamel, to name just a few of his ventures. He was a painter-businessman who passed his practice down to his son, Bicci di Lorenzo, and his grandson, Neri di Bicci, both masters in their own right who ran thriving studios in Florence.
Lorenzo di Bicci's art is informed by the works of Orcagna and his followers, including Jacopo di Cione and Niccolò di Pietro Gerini, and some scholars have convincingly argued that he was specifically trained in the workshop of a minor master called the Master of the San Niccolò Altarpiece. The present panel seems to date to Lorenzo's early period, in which he painted the Christ Child 'radiating strength and health' but lacking in corporeal density (Boskovits, op. cit., p. 56). The rosy-cheeked child kicks his feet playfully and grasps the little finger of his mother's hand - a remarkably innovative gesture of tenderness - but seems to float weightlessly in the Madonna's arms. In this way Lorenzo created Madonnas and saints, described by Boskovits as always in 'a type of ecstasy, with fixed eyes resplendent like enamel', that are relatable to humans but always in a distinct, sacred realm (ibid, p. 56).
Lorenzo's art is also characterized by a luminous and nuanced use of color, particularly evident in the present panel. The Madonna's sumptuous red robe is depicted with incredibly sensitive attention to light and shadow, with dark glazes layered on for added richness in areas of shade. The central pair of figures is surrounded by a mandorla composed of red seraphim, of the highest angelic order, and blue cherubim, of the second-highest, which are depicted in sets of eight as outlined by church doctrine. Each angel is differentiated, with distinct facial expressions and orientations toward the central group, and enlivened with delicate lines of gold that evoke resplendent, holy light. One in particular, on the right, looks out directly to engage the viewer. The vermillion-colored seraphim echo the Madonna's rosy cheeks and her reddish-orange hair, which is beautifully articulated in individual strands and partially covered by a veil whose translucency, along with that of the Christ Child's shroud, is a testament to the artist's skill.
The Madonna nursing the Christ Child is an iconographical type that dates back in Western art as far as the second century A.D. In this role, the Madonna is a symbol of nourishment and protection, both as the Mother of God and therefore as Mater omnium (Mother of all) and Nutrix omnium (Nurturer of all). As such, she also takes on the role of intercessor, or Maria Mediatrix, whose prayers could not be refused by the son whom she so nurtured. In this context of her role as nurturer, the golden stars adorning the Madonna's robe are particularly noteworthy, referring to her title as Stella Maris (Star of the Sea) and evoking the guiding light she provides.
The first recorded owner of this painting was Count Giuseppe Primoli, a renowned collector and photographer as well as the great-grandson of Napoleon's brother, Lucien Bonaparte. Today the ground floor of his home, the Palazzo Primoli, contains objects from his collection and comprises the Museo Napoleonico, bequeathed to the city of Rome when the Count died in 1927.