This is one of two known panels from a predella from an as yet unidentified altarpiece, by the Florentine artist Neri di Bicci. Born in 1419, the son of the artist Bicci di Lorenzo, Neri was from the third generation of a thriving family workshop that flourished for over a century in and around Florence. He entered the studio in 1434, and quickly took a leading role in the day to day running of the business, meticulously recorded in a workshop diary between 1453-75, known as the Ricordanze, the single most extensive surviving document relating to a fifteenth-century Italian painter and his working methods (see B. Santi ed., Neri di Bicci: Le Ricordanze (10 marzo 1453-24 aprile 1475), Pisa, 1976).
Neri's style was at first subsumed within that of the larger workshop, but by the late 1440s he began to achieve a certain autonomy, executing uncomplicated pictures in a simple, legible style which, while showing an awareness of Filippo Lippi and Domenico Veneziano, remained true to an earlier aesthetic, characterised by bold colours and clear-cut outlines. His work appealed to a wide range of patrons from elite families such as the Soderini and Rucellai to small artisans and parish churches. Neri di Bicci enjoyed a long career and over the years employed many assistants, of which twenty-two are named in the Ricordanze, among them Cosimo Rosselli and Francesco Botticini, both of whom became successful artists in their own right. Neri's forthright style lent itself very well to the depiction of narrative scenes, as is the case with this picture.
The subject of this dramatic panel is the martyrdom of Saint Januarius (also known as San Gennaro), an early bishop of Naples and the patron saint of the city, who died in 305, one of the many victims of Diocletian's persecution of Christians. The Saint is shown kneeling and praying in an extensive river landscape, while the executioner prepares to deal the fatal blow with his sword. To the right is the Emperor Diocletian, who seemingly orders the execution, flanked by two bodyguards, while to the left, two more soldiers watch the precedings. The figures are situated outside an impressive walled city, possibly Naples itself, although sources suggest that Januarius was beheaded in Solfatara, the volcanic crater just outside Pozzuoli. In this work Neri creates a clear contrast between the linear arrangement of the figures in the foreground against a wide and unusually complex landscape with a meandering river, mountains in the middle and far distance and the walls of the city receding diagonally up to the vanishing point.
A related panel, probably from the same predella, is in the Kress Collection (Pomona College, Museum of Art, inv. no. K1003; see fig. 1). This panel, of similar size, although slightly trimmed along the upper edge, also depicts the martyrdom of an early Saint, in this case Saint Apollonia, who died in the anti-Christian riots that swept Alexandria in 249, just prior to the persecution of Decius. The arrangement of the figures in this panel is very similar to that already seen in the present work, with the Saint being tortured in the centre, while another Emperor (possibly Philip the Arab or Decius) is once again seen standing on the right with his bodyguards, directing the grisly proceedings, and with two soldiers standing in a very similar pose on the left. Unlike the present panel, the mountainous landscape is only glimpsed either side of a loggia, with its five supporting columns, under which the action takes place. The altarpiece for the two predella panels is yet to be identified, but both works can be dated to the 1460s. We are grateful to Professor Miklòs Boskovits for confirming the attribution on the basis of photographs.