Niccolò di Tommaso was amongst the most productive Florentine masters of the third quarter of the fourteenth century. First documented in Florence in 1346 as a member of the Arte dei medici e speziali, the guild to which painters at the time belonged, he was probably a pupil and collaborator of Jacopo and Nardo di Cione, who ran a thriving workshop in the city and whose influence is evident in Niccolò’s work. The master likely collaborated with Nardo on the frescoes of the Strozzi Chapel at Santa Maria Novella. In 1371, Niccolò is recorded in Naples, where he painted a triptych for the church of Sant’Antonio Abate in Foria (Naples, Museo di Capodimonte), a work which may have been commissioned by Joanna I of Naples (1328-1382). Shortly after this, he executed a series of monumental frescoes at the Convento del Tau at Pistoia. This cycle, generally recognized as his masterpiece, had a considerable influence on art production in Pistoia which, like the nearby town of Prato, remained an active autonomous entity, despite economic and political dominion from Florence. Niccolò’s substantial oeuvre was first established by Richard Offner, whose catalogue was significantly expanded by Miklós Boskovits (op. cit.).
This portable triptych was likely painted for a small chapel or for the private devotions of its original owner. The format is typical of similar objects produced in the trecento, deriving from a type which originated in Bernardo Daddi’s workshop and that had been further propagated by the Orcagna studio: in the pinnacles, the Angel Gabriel kneels at left, delivering his message of divine conception to the Virgin, seen on the right in a pose of deference. On the left wing, in place of the more usual Nativity, the artist shows the Coronation of the Virgin, with Saint Dominic and a Bishop saint. This implies that the triptych may have been commissioned by a Dominican patron, an order which held strong devotions to the Virgin. The right wing depicts the Crucifixion with the grief-stricken Virgin, Saint John the Evangelist, and Mary Magdalene. The central panel shows the enthroned Madonna and Child, their cheeks pressed together, in a composition related to the Byzantine Glykophilousa (‘affectionate’ or ‘sweet-kissing’ type). Surrounding them are Saints Catherine, Bartholomew, Paul and Lucy. Remarkably, the painted fictive porphyry decoration on the exterior of the wings is for the most part intact (fig. 1).