circle of Filippino Lippi, The Virgin and Child with the Young St John the Baptist between SS Francis and ? Joseph

Photo courtesy of Dave Penman (All Rights Reserved)


Country House
Mells Manor
The Virgin and Child with the Young St John the Baptist between SS Francis and ? Joseph
Medium and support
Ink wash ? on wood prepared with a layer of gesso
Overall height: 75 cm, Overall width: 59 cm
circle of Filippino Lippi
Catalogue Number


This is a rather puzzling picture or, rather, the monochrome lay-in of a picture. (The technique is listed at Mells as parchment laid down on wood but this writer was unable to descry a layer of parchment; the dimensions appear to be original: the panel does not seem to be a fragment.) The overall impression is of disjunction: the Child looks out to His left and gestures but there is no presence to explain his action. The child Baptist inserted at the lower centre is much smaller than he should be. The design appears to be an edited extract from a larger composition, with additions either by the artist himself or borrowed from another source, and this was confirmed by Mr Christopher Daly who kindly communicated his views on it to the present writer:

The underdrawing is very interesting . . . my first thought was Filippino Lippi’s follower from Prato, Tommaso di Piero Trombetto. He revisited the same design of the Virgin and Child, which derives from Filippino’s altarpiece for the Sala dell’Udienza, Palazzo Comunale, Prato, at least twice: in one altarpiece and one fresco, both in rural Pratese territory. Aside from utilizing the same design, these two works are also drawn quite similarly and marked by a certain stiffness. Moreover, the figure of Saint Joseph is lifted from another Pratese source, Fra Filippo’s altarpiece from S. Vicenzo Ferrer, Prato (now at the Museo di Palazzo Pretorio, Prato), though I don’t know of any other Trombetto that looks toward Fra Filippo for a source. However, he was a repetitive painter so this is certainly possible . . .1

Mr Daly’s comments seem pertinent to the present writer. The same arrangement of the Virgin and Child can be seen in Trombetto’s frescoed Virgin and Child between SS John the Evangelist and Francis in Sta Lucia, Prato, which is dated 1506.2 And, as Mr Daly indicates, the saint on the right, probably not St Joseph, is taken from Filippo Lippi’s Adoration of the Child formerly in San Domenico, Prato but now in the city museum. Interestingly, in the head of Joseph in this picture Ulrich Middeldorf (cited by Morselli, 1989) saw an intervention by Filippino. 

No original of this pose by Filippino either in painting or drawing seems to be known, so one cannot be entirely certain that the Virgin and Child are based on his design; nevertheless, it seems likely. The link with his father’s (or his own) work in the pose of the right-hand saint is also telling. It is clear that Trombetto was a Filippinesque artist: as Mr Daly points out, another painting by him in the Museum of Pieve di S. Pietro a Figline (Prato), a late work dated 1529, takes the pose of the Virgin and Child from Filippino’s street tabernacle in Prato, dated 1498.3 However, the execution of the present panel seems firmer and more secure than one might expect from Trombetto, at least from his known paintings, while not attaining the energy – or the compositional coherence – that one would expect from Filippino himself. Provisionally, it should be attributed to a painter in Filippino’s orbit, one who was probably based in Prato and who was working around 1500 or a little later. This profile, of course, fits Trombetto better than any other named painter but it cannot be attributed to him securely.

However, a different opinion, expressed by Dr Laurence Kanter, has given this writer pause. In Dr Kanter’s view this panel is likely to be ‘a pastiche . . . not a preparatory drawing . . . [but] a series of copies after three different sources’. He adds that the ‘continuity of line reminds me of late eighteenth century material, not fifteenth–sixteenth century.’4 The present writer did not feel doubts about the authenticity of the picture when he studied it but would readily admit that he did not consider the possibility that it might be a fake rather than an early sixteenth-century mélange. It would obviously be desirable to have a laboratory examination of this panel but, for the present, the writer would prefer to retain it as a Renaissance work: as an elaborate and highly finished drawing, it can be parallelled in the work of Giovanni Bellini; and the diminished scale of the young St John would be surprising from an artist of c.1800.

by Paul Joannides


  1. Christopher Daly, private communication, 2020. See Claudio Pescio, ed., Filippino Lippi: un bellissimo ingegno. Origini ed eredità nel territorio di Prato, exh. cat., Florence: Giunti Editore, 2004.

  2. Morselli, 1989, xxiii, under no. 9, pp. 46–7, noting the influence of Filippino.

  3. Katharine B. Neilson, Filippino Lippi, a Critical Study, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1938, fig. 66; Patrizia Zambrano and Jonathan Katz Neslon, Filippino Lippi, Milan: Electa, 2004, cat. no. 54, p. 587.

  4. Dr Laurence Kanter, private communication, 2020.


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