These two panels are likely to have formed part of the pilasters for Signorelli’s Lamentation of 1501-2 (Cortona, Diocesan Museum), originally on the high altar of the church of Santa Margherita at Cortona. This was unquestionably the most distinguished of the numerous commissions Signorelli executed for his native town. Indeed, it is one of the largest and most ornate altarpieces of his entire career. The predella depicted the Agony in the Garden, the Last Supper, the Arrest of Christ, and the Flagellation. Old descriptions of the altarpiece establish that the lateral elements depicted Saints Michael, John the Baptist, Anthony Abbot, Basil, Jerome, Louis of Toulouse, Bonaventura, and the Saint Francis of the present lot. Whilst these descriptions do not mention Saint Nicholas, the panel is the same size and would appear to be related to the commission. The panel of Saint Michael, which seems to have served as the topmost element of the left-hand pilaster, was sold in these Rooms, 9 December 2009, lot 116, for £127,250 (fig. 1).
In circa 1719, Francesco Fabrucci (1687-1767) produced a drawing of the high altar of the church of Santa Margharita, Cortona, showing Signorelli’s altarpiece in situ. The drawing, now in the Archivio Segreto Vaticano, Rome, is considered unreliable by Kanter and Henry as it represents all of the saints as bishops (loc. cit.). However, it clearly demonstrates the dominant presence of the altarpiece in the church and appears to show the panel of Saint Francis second from the top on the left-hand pilaster, beneath that of the aforementioned Saint Michael, with the panel of Saint Nicholas third from the top on the right.