These beautiful little panels by Neri di Bicci would originally have formed part of a predella to a larger altarpiece, accompanied by the Adoration of the Christ Child with the Annunciation to the Shepherds and the Stories of the Magi now in the Berenson collection at Villa I Tatti, Settignano, Florence (fig. 1). The Berenson scene is similarly painted within a lozenge shape, outlined with a double border of black and cream, with the same green and black faux marble effect embellishing the spandrels between. The three vignettes are also unified by the treatment of the sky, pale beneath with clouds hovering above the distant mountains and a strip of dark, midnight blue above. Each of the scenes is played out within a similar desert landscape, peppered with tiny shrubs and pebbles and with craggy cliffs framing the compositions at either side. The Berenson panel is cropped on all edges, accounting for the difference in height, measuring only 10 ½ in. (26.5 cm.), but the composition is elongated, with the panel overall measuring 39 in. (99.9 cm.) in length, compared to the 55 7/8 in. (142 cm.) of the present two scenes combined.
While the present panels undoubtedly formed a predella with the Berenson panel, it is not known to which altarpiece they might have all belonged. The saints depicted might perhaps hold the key, as they might have been represented as larger saints in the principal panel. Saint John the Baptist is easily recognized, as is Saint Bernardino, yet the female figure is less easily identifiable. Having apparently fallen from a bridge into the waters below, she appears to be the recipient of a posthumous miracle by Saint Bernardino who emerges floating on a cloud. The altarpiece would presumably have depicted both Saints Bernardino and John the Baptist since they appear in the predella, but there is no mention of an altarpiece with those subjects in Neri di Bicci’s Ricordanze (C. Frosinini, op. cit., p. 486).
In 1900, the panels were included in the sale of Eugen Miller von Aichholz (1835-1919), with an attribution to Fra Angelico (loc. cit.). Curiously, at that time they were affixed to a double-sided reliquary, flanking it at either side. The reliquary in question is today in the Museum of Fine Art, Boston, having entered the collection in 1960, and is attributed to the Master of Osservanza (inv. no. 65.536). The three panels acquired together by Henri Heugel in their state as a peculiar triptych and passed down in turn to his wife and his son, Jacques Heugel (loc. cit.). At some point, however, the reliquary was disengaged and was sold separately by Otto Wertheimer to M. Knoedler and Co. in January of 1952, while, according to Zeri, the Neri di Bicci panels instead remained in the Heugel collection until at least 1964 (Fondazione Federico Zeri archive, no. 12176, note on the reverse of a photograph of the Berenson panel). Though Berenson knew of the present panels, publishing them in 1932, he did not connect them to the Adoration, which had been in his own collection since 1924, suggesting he had not seen photographs of them (loc. cit.).