NARDO DI CIONE
(b. ca. 1320, Firenze, d. ca. 1365, Firenze)

Sts John the Baptist, John the Evangelist and James

1363-65
Egg tempera on poplar, 160 x 148 cm
National Gallery, London

St John the Baptist - who, according to the Bible, wandered the desert preaching about Jesus - is shown in the centre of this panel. He carries a scroll with his declaration of the coming of Christ: 'I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness. Prepare the way of the Lord'. He stands between St John the Evangelist and St James, who clutches a pilgrim's staff. Nardo has contrasted the saints' simplicity with the lavish textile – dotted with carnations, vine tendrils and birds – on which they stand.

The picture was made for a 'hospital church' in Florence – that is, a church connected to a hospital – dedicated to St John the Baptist. The hospital was, in this case, run by the Knights Hospitaller, a religious order with a military function and a tradition of caring for the sick. They were also known as the Knights of St John after their patron saint.

The saints were originally separated by twisting colonettes (small columns). Sts John the Baptist and James are on the same panel, which is unusual: saints were normally painted on separate panels. The figures are all full length, of equal size – and therefore importance – and stand on the same piece of fabric. This represents a transition between the traditional polyptych and the single-panel altarpiece known as a pala, which became the standard form in the sixteenth century. Pala altarpieces showed sacra conversazione ('holy conversations'), where saints occupy the same spatial setting as though they are speaking with one another.

The tops of the panel have been cut down and may have been pointed originally. There were probably additional pinnacle panels, now lost, on top of this section.