This and another panel in the National Gallery of Art depicting Saint James Minor were part of a large—11 feet long—and impressive altarpiece made for the church of San Francesco al Prato in Perugia (see Reconstructions). Only the monks and other clergy would have seen these paintings because they decorated the back of the altarpiece. The front, the only side normally visible to the congregation, likely illustrated episodes from the life of Christ, with saints and prophets interspersed.
Saint John and his companions on the back of the altarpiece stand under arches that, when all the panels were joined, would have placed them in a continuous arcade. Circular cuttings in the spandrels between the arches probably held glass ornaments. The round form of the arches, the acanthus capitals of the columns, and the Roman style dress of the figures were modeled after an early Christian sarcophagus that had been unearthed in Perugia in 1262, perhaps ten years or so before the altarpiece was painted. This marble coffin was reused for the burial of the Blessed Egido (known in English as Blessed Giles) in the crypt of San Francesco. In all likelihood, the altarpiece stood directly above the spot where Egido, one of Francis’s first followers, was entombed.
Additional surviving panels (now in other museums) include four other apostles and Saint Francis. Inclusion of the saint, canonized some 50 years earlier, would have had particular significance in this Franciscan church. Many members of the order regarded their founder, Saint Francis, as the 13th apostle.