First published in the 1991 exhibition catalogue, the charm of this small altarpiece is enhanced by the atmospheric rendering of the landscape that surrounds the figures. Set among bare rocks and under a night sky, they appeal to the viewer's sentiment in a manner characteristic of many of the artist's works, explaining his success amongst his fairly conservative group of patrons. As in the work of the stylistically-related Giovanni di Ser Giovanni, Neri's eclectic style is possessed of a particularly innocent charm on a small format, that is sometimes lost in larger-scale works.
Although stylistically recalling Pesellino and Fra Filippo Lippi, Neri here reveals the influence of his father, Bicci di Lorenzo. The composition displays the influence of other artists: the Madonna in the Mandorla derives from Duccio's design for a window of the Duomo in Florence, which had in turn been popularised by Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci (Pinacoteca Vaticana, no. 161); whilst the figure of God the Father in an aureole of seraphim, and the foreshortened angel over the empty sarcophagus, owe to Filippo Lippi. A later version in the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, further develops the themes represented here, under the influence of Neri's Florentine contemporaries, although the figure of Saint Thomas is repeated unaltered.
As Neri's style hardly changed through his career, it is hard to date this work accurately. However, given the continuing influence of his father, a date in his middle period would seem likely. In his Ricordanze, a document that covers his professional and private life from 1453-75, Neri relates:
Sabato a di 13 di marzo 1461 [i.e. 1462, as in Florence the New Year began on 25 March, Annunciation Day]
Richordo che a di detto rendei a Pietro Tazi orafo uno tabernachuluzo a sportegli drentovi quatro istoriette: Asunzione di Nostra Dona, diserto, messo d'oro fine, lavorata di fini azuri e tuta ornata a mia spesa; de' f. 4 larghi dare d'achordo f. quatro larghi; portgliele Tonino ist mecho detto di, fattone chonto d'achordo in questo a c. 92: l[ire] 21, A libroD a c 77
This 'tabernacholuzo' depicting the same subjects as the present work is presumably the same as that mentioned in a subsequent passage:
Mercholedi a di 18 di genaio 1463
Ragione chon Pietro Tazi
Richordo ch'el sproadetto di fatto chonto chon Pietro Tazi orafo in Merchato Nuovo d'una fetta paonaza gli bende'insino a di 5 d'aghosto 1460 l. 3 s. 6 d. 1, e 2 grani d'oro l. 1 s. 16 e d'uno tabernacholo gli missi d'oro e ornai una Vergine Maria in marmo e missi d'azuro in certi luoghi tuto a mia ispesa d'achordo l. venti e d'uno tabernacholetto drentovi molte figure gli fe' pr una monicha del Paradiso d'achordo l 21, dove tute l. 46 s. 2 ...
The altarpiece that in both entries has the same price of 21 lire was meant for a nun of the convent of San Salvatore e Santa Brigida, called Paradiso, of the Bridgettine Order, towards the southern end of the city of Florence. This explains not only the presence of the two founders of the order, Bridget and her daughter, Catherine, on the central panel, but also the depiction of the Nativity, the subject of one of Saint Bridget's most important visions. The image of the youthful Baptist, the patron Saint of Florence, completes the iconography.