Lot 23
  • 23

Bicci di Lorenzo

300,000 - 500,000 GBP
Log in to view results
bidding is closed


  • Bicci di Lorenzo
  • The Nativity
  • tempera on poplar panel, gold ground


Franz von Lenbach (1836–1904), Munich;

His daughter, Gabriele Neven DuMont (1899–1978), Cologne;

Thence by descent to the present owners.


Stuttgart, Staatsgalerie, Frühe italienische Tafelmalerei, 13 May – 25 June 1950, p. 31, no. 18, reproduced plate 35 (as Cenno di Francesco di Ser Cenni);

Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Frühe italienische Kunst des 13.–15. Jahrhunderts, 1 July – 15 September 1953, p. 10, no. 2 (as Bicci di Lorenzo);

Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, on loan since 1968 (inv. dep. 320; bears Gemälde-Inventar 1925 label on the reverse);

Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Myrrhe, Gold und Weihrauch, 1 December 1996 – 2 February 1997, no. 2.


R. Longhi, ‘Primitivi italiani a Stoccarda’, Paragone, I, no. 7, July 1950, p. 47 (as Bicci di Lorenzo, c. 1425–35);

H. D. Gronau, ‘Early Italian Paintings at Stuttgart’, The Burlington Magazine, no. 572, vol. 92, November 1950, p. 322 (as Bicci di Lorenzo);

G. von der Osten, ‘Berichte aus Westdeutschen Museen, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum Köln’, Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch, vol. 30, 1968, pp. 387–88 (as Florentine, c. 1420);

H. Keller, ‘Berichte aus Westdeutschen Museen, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum Köln’, Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch, vol. 31, 1969, p. 323 (as Bicci di Lorenzo, c. 1430–35);

B. Klesse, Katalog der italienischen, französischen und spanischen Gemälde bis 1800 im Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne 1973, pp. 24–25, reproduced fig. 12 (as Bicci di Lorenzo);

C. Heβe and M. Schlagenhaufer, Vollständiges Verzeichnis der Gemäldesammlung, Cologne 1986, p. 13, reproduced fig. 454;

R. Budde and R. Krischel, Das Wallraf-Richartz-Museum: Hundert Meisterwerke von Simone Martini bis Edvard Munch, Cologne 2001, p. 54, reproduced in colour on p. 55 (as Bicci di Lorenzo, c. 1430–35).


The following condition report is provided by Sarah Walden who is an external specialist and not an employee of Sotheby's: Bicci di Lorenzo. The Nativity. This painting is on a single piece of poplar. There has been fairly consistent worm damage over time, with some fairly recent traces. A few minute worm holes can be seen in the painting itself but the panel still remains comparatively strong, with no sign of any long cracks, and just three short cracks running down from the top for about 6 centimetres. Three cross bars have been added behind, with little vertical offshoots, probably a century or so ago. The gilding in the background is rather worn in places, showing the bole mainly near the edges, and the halos have slight wear, with small holes reinforced in bright scarlet for instance in Christ's halo. However in fact little appears to have been touched for a long time, with just a few darkened old retouchings: a single slanting scratch crossing the ox's head has been roughly daubed with blackish paint as also has some mark nearby. Similarly there is a dark splash of old surface repaint near Joseph's hands, and smaller spots on his beautifully preserved yellow drapery, presumably from worm. The azurite robe of the Madonna has blackened, as is often the case. Elsewhere throughout the fine tempera paint is in extraordinarily good, virtually untouched condition. The figures in particular are beautifully unworn, including each of the delicate heads of the holy family, as well as the vigorous depiction of the shepherds on the right. This report was not done under laboratory conditions.
"This lot is offered for sale subject to Sotheby's Conditions of Business, which are available on request and printed in Sotheby's sale catalogues. The independent reports contained in this document are provided for prospective bidders' information only and without warranty by Sotheby's or the Seller."

Catalogue Note

One of the most important painters of early fifteenth-century Florence, Bicci di Lorenzo created a distinctly traditionalist style that ensured a long-lasting demand for his paintings, exemplified here in this luminous and refined work. It was painted in the early 1430s and comes to the market for the first time in over a century.

Born in Florence, Bicci di Lorenzo trained under his father Lorenzo di Bicci (d. 1427), eventually taking over the workshop, which became a thriving enterprise and was later handed down to his own son Neri di Bicci (1419–91). During the course of a career that spanned four decades, Bicci produced a large number of works that can accurately be recorded either from dates inscribed on the paintings themselves or from documentary evidence.

Both Longhi and Gronau in their reviews of the exhibition at Stuttgart in 1950 first recognised this Nativity as a panel by Bicci di Lorenzo. In refuting the attribution to Cenno di Francesco di Ser Cenni, Gronau described the work as a ‘characteristic and excellent’ work by Bicci.1 The date proposed by Longhi of about 1425–35 has since been narrowed by Klesse to c. 1430–35 on the basis of comparisons with dated altarpieces.2

Bicci revisited the theme of the Nativity numerous times, sometimes in predella panels – such as the now destroyed Nativity dated 1423 (formerly Kaiser-Friedrich Museum, Berlin) – and always varying the poses of his figures in subtle ways.3 The design of this Nativity is most closely comparable to the central predella panel of the triptych in Sant’Ippolito, Bibbiena (Casentino), dated 1435, one of very few of Bicci’s compositions to position the manger parallel with the stable, rather than at an oblique angle.4 An analogous Nativity is a predella panel attributed to Bicci di Lorenzo in the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Mass.5 Comparisons have also been drawn with an altarpiece by Bicci di Lorenzo in San Giovannino dei Cavalieri, Florence.6 Albeit that the latter is much larger in scale, the principal figures are very similar in pose and configuration to the ones in this panel, so too are the colours, which led Klesse to favour a dating of about 1430–35. One other depiction deserves mention, not least because it is a rare instance of this subject by this artist appearing on the market: the Nativity and the Adoration of the Shepherds, formerly in the Pratt collection, New York. The latter comes closest to this Nativity in the pose adopted for St Joseph, albeit that here Bicci paints the gesture of intertwined hands clasping the knee in a way that is altogether more vivid and true to life.7

Other elements of this panel that best display Bicci’s finesse include his characteristic use of precisely rendered backgrounds in combination with bright colours; here Bicci’s tonal use of pigment describes not only rock formations in varying shades of earth colours, but also the darkest depths of the cave at the centre of the composition. By contrast the vivid colours of the drapery offer a rich spectrum of yellows, reds and greens. The interplay between the praying Madonna, the swaddled Jesus (toes bare) and pensive Joseph are masterfully orchestrated; their clarity surpasses many of the examples cited above. The infant Jesus, the Madonna, Joseph, and two shepherds are all contained within the framework of the stable. Its thatched roof conveys a clear sense of structure merely by the glimpse offered of its underside. There are many lively details on this panel, not least the hem of the Madonna's mantle, which echoes the contours of the rock, as if the folds of fabric were about to disappear down a crevice.

The presence of a cave as the locus of the Nativity derives from an apochryphal source, the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, probably written in the seventh century, which describes the nativity as taking place there. According to this source Mary left the cave on the third day and brought the infant Jesus to a stable, where the ox and the ass adored him. In the painting, the stable, made of roughly hewn trunks that support a canopy, stands at the mouth of the cave. The cave may also represent an evocation of Christ’s place of burial and rebirth.

The edges of this panel are trimmed on all four sides, which make it difficult to determine its original location. Its dimensions make it improbable that it was once part of a predella. Bicci, in the majority of his interpretations of the Nativity, favoured a horizontal format. The composition of this panel is therefore highly unusual in concentrating the narrative within a markedly vertical format. The absence of hosts of angels in this Nativity poses the question of how much more of the gold ground beyond the edges of the panel might once have existed.  


1. Gronau 1950, p. 322 and Longhi 1950, p. 47.

2. Klesse 1973, pp. 24–25.

3. R. Fremantle, Florentine Gothic Painters, From Giotto to Masaccio, A Guide to Painting in and near Florence 1300 to 1450, London 1975, p. 473, fig. 980; 41 x 40 cm., shaped with foliated top.

4. Fremantle 1975, p. 479, fig. 996; 280 x 250 (whole including the spires); predella approx. H. 40 cm.

5. Inv. 1920–19. Reproduced in R. Van Marle, The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting, vol. IX, New York, 1970, p. 26, fig. 16.

6. Fremantle 1975, p. 482, fig. 1003; 190 x 190 cm.

7. Tempera on panel, gold ground, 25.5 x 62 cm.; sold London, Sotheby’s, 5 May 1995, lot 49, for £120,000.