1437: Freeing the Poor

Sassetta - The Blessed Ranieri Frees the Poor from a Prison in Florence (1437-44)

Sassetta: The Blessed Ranieri Frees the Poor from a Prison in Florence (1437-44)

This painting—now in the Louvre—was once part of an elaborate altarpiece in the Church of S. Francesco in Sansepolcro, Tuscany. The altarpiece contained 60 images and was constructed over the tomb of the Blessed Ranieri Rasini, the patron saint of Pisa; only about half of those images now survive, scattered in museums and private collections.

Ranieri (also know as Saint Rainerius) was born in the early twelfth century, the son of a prosperous Pisan merchant and shipowner. According to his official biography, he lived a lavish and sinful life as a wandering minstrel, carousing at night and sleeping by day. One evening, he met and spoke with a holy man, which lead him to see the light, burn his fiddle, and renounce his carefree life. He then became a successful merchant like his father and amassed a large fortune.

One day, however, he found that his money exuded an evil stench. Taking this as as a sign, he gave away his fortune and lived the rest of his life in poverty, eventually becoming capable of healing the sick and performing miracles.

The miracle depicted above occurred when prisoners in Florence wrote Ranieri a letter asking for his help; he soon appeared outside the prison, the story goes, and miraculously engineered their release.

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