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4 Crowned, unknown martyrs of Florence


Shutterstock | simona flamigni

Daniel Esparza - published on 04/09/24

History is filled with tales of revered, famous saints. Countless other saints remain unknown. And yet, some of their stories are whispered between worn stones and weathered frescoes

History is filled with tales of revered, famous saints. Names like Teresa and John are etched in the hearts and minds of the faithful. Yet countless other saints remain in silent obscurity. Some of their stories, however, are whispered between worn stones and weathered frescoes. Nanni Di Banco’s “Four Crowned Saints,” which adorns Florence’s Orsanmichele Church, offers a poignant glimpse into one of these stories.

Commissioned between 1409 and 1416, the marble sculpture depicts four Roman sculptors named Casorius, Claudius, Sempronius, and Nicostratus. Legend tells of their martyrdom under Emperor Diocletian. These early Christian sculptors refused to please the emperor, who had asked them to make a statue to the pagan god of health, Asclepius. They were thus sentenced to death because of their disobedience – a literal testimony to their Christian faith. The sculpture finds further meaning in the relief at its base, which depicts the saints as stonemasons – a nod to their patronage of architects and sculptors.

Although not explicitly documented, the “Four Crowned Saints” is widely attributed to Di Banco. Its date of creation has sparked scholarly debate, with some seeing it as an early work and others as a sign of his artistic maturity. Regardless, it’s a masterful example of early Renaissance sculpture, its figures imbued with a quiet dignity and realism that foreshadowed later artistic movements.

These early Christian sculptors refused to please the emperor, who had asked them to make a statue to the pagan god of health, Asclepius.

A whimsical legend spun by Giorgio Vasari (regarded by many as the first historian of art) tells of Donatello, a fellow Renaissance master, who lent a critical eye to the work. He is said to have helped di Banco rearrange the figures to better fit the niche – a charming story now widely accepted as artistic embellishment.

Interestingly, the sculpture bears a unique historical mark: a dark patina applied in the 18th and 19th centuries. This was intended to create a uniform bronze-like appearance among Orsanmichele’s sculptures and was only recently removed during restoration.

The “Four Crowned Saints” serve as a powerful reminder of everyday sainthood. Even among famed saints like Francis or Catherine, countless others lived their faith with courage and conviction. Their stories may be less known, but their legacy echoes in Catholic tradition – and even in the quiet beauty of artwork like this. It invites us to celebrate the many unsung heroes who shaped Catholic history, whose names may be lost but whose spirit endures – sometimes even in stone.

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