Wednesday, August 10, 2011

St. Lawrence, Deacon and Martyr

Mosaic of St. Lawrence
Byzantine, First half of 5th Century
Ravenna, Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
(Here Lawrence is shown as a triumphant martyr, clothed and carrying the cross and a book.  The grid iron and fire occupy the center of the composition.)
August 10 is the memorial of St. Lawrence, a deacon in Rome in the mid-third century. From the time of his martyrdom in 258 he has been in constant remembrance. Lawrence was already well known as a patron of Rome by the mid-third century and he is still one of the saints mentioned in the list of Roman martyrs in the Roman Canon, the most traditional (in the sense of having been in use over a long time period) of the four Eucharistic Prayers of the Mass. This list includes some of the early Popes (Linus, Cletus, Clement) as well as other male martyr saints (additional male and female saints are also mentioned in a separate prayer within the Roman Canon). He is also one of the patron saints of the city of Rome and patron of cooks, comedians, libraries and librarians.

By the Middle Ages there were approximately twenty churches and chapels in Rome dedicated to St. Lawrence and many of these buildings still survive, including: from the 4th century San Lorenzo in Damaso; from the 5th century San Lorenzo in Lucina; from the 6th century San Lorenzo fuori le mura; from the 7th century San Lorenzo in Miranda; from the 9th century San Lorenzo in Panisperna. Many of these churches were built in the places associated with Lawrence’s arrest, martyrdom and burial. In the remains of the ancient papal palace at the Lateran the chapel, commonly known at the “Sanctum Sanctorum”, is dedicated to St. Lawrence.
Master Mahiet and Workshop, Martyrdom of St. Lawrence
From Speculum historiale by Vincentius Bellovacensis
French, ca. 1335
Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale Francais
MS Arsenal 5080, fol.194
(There are two scenes in this same illustration.  On the left, Lawrence distributes bread to the poor.  On the right he suffers martyrdom.)
Clearly, something about Lawrence or about his death caused him to be remembered in a special way in the centuries following his martyrdom. According to tradition, Lawrence died in a particularly gruesome way. He was bound to an iron grid (probably a bedstead or window grill) and roasted over hot coals. He is reported to have said to his tormentors “assum est… versa et manduca”, which is usually translated into English as “I’m done on this side, turn me over and eat”. Such a humorous response to cruelty may encapsulate some memories of Lawrence himself. 1

For this reason, the majority of images of Lawrence have presented either his martyrdom or have been images of him, dressed in a dalmatic (the vestment unique to deacons) and holding either a book (the Gospels, which it is the deacon’s mission to proclaim) or the gird iron of his martyrdom, or both. These images have been popular throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and into the Baroque and later. They come from as far apart as Rome, Spain, England and Sweden, demonstrating that the popularity of Lawrence was not just confined to the region of Rome. Examples follow.

Stained Glass
English, Kent (Canterbury), ca.  1175-1180
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
(Here Lawrence is seated.  The fire is beneath him.)
Saint Nicolas and St. Lawrence, Wall Painting
Swedish,  c, 1300-1500
Hajdeby, Sweden, Parish Church
(Here Lawrence carries both the grid iron and a martyr's palm)

Detail from a Psalter
Flemish, 13th Century
London, British Library,
MS Burney 345, fol. 69r
(Note that the little figures of the demon and the torturer with the bellows add a touch of humor)
Master Francois and Workshop. Martyrdom of St. Lawrence
From Speculum historiale by Vincentius Bellovacensis
French, 1453
Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale Francais,
MS Francais 51, fol. 31
(Here we see a more developed view of the circumstances surrounding Lawrence's martyrdom, including his prior torture, his cure of the blind fellow prisoner and Emperor Valerian as an onlooker)
Andrea Mantegna, Right wing of San Zeno altarpiece
Italian, 1457-1460
Verona, San Zeno
(Here St. Lawrence stands with a group of other saints, holding the martyr's palm and his grid iron)
Bartolomeo Vivarini, St. Lawrence
Panel from an altarpiece
Italian, 1470s
Venice, Church of Santo Stefano

Bernardo Strozzi, St. Lawrence
Italian, 1615-1620
Rome, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte
(Here Lawrence is shown distributing valuables to the poor)

Francisco de Zurbaran, St. Lawrence
Spanish, 1636
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum
However, there is one place where the image of Lawrence is not just of his martyrdom or a static image of sanctity. This is in a small chapel in the Vatican, created at the request of Pope Nicholas V at the time in which he moved the papal residence from the Lateran Palace to the Vatican. Although the dedication of the chapel is to St. Lawrence himself (possibly in homage to the Sanctum Sanctorum of the Lateran palace), the chapel is known as the Chapel of Nicholas V (Cappella Niccolina). 2
Fra Angelico and Collaborators, Chapel of Nicholas V, Overall view
Italian, 1448-1449
Vatican City State, Vatican Museums

The chapel was created by adding a connecting room between two towers in the Vatican palace in early 1447 by order of the newly elected Pope Nicholas. Nicholas then commissioned the famous Florentine painter, Fra Angelico, to decorate the chapel in preparation for the Jubilee Year (Holy Year) of 1450. Fra Angelico (born Guido di Pietro and known in his life time as Fra Giovanni da Fiesole) and his assistants were already in Rome, having been commissioned by Nicholas’ predecessor, Eugenius IV to decorate another chapel (destroyed in the early 16th century to make way for an extension of the Vatican offices known as the Stanze, which were decorated by Raphael and his assistants).

On the walls of the new chapel Angelico planned a cycle of frescoes celebrating the lives and martyrdom of two deacon saints, Stephen and Lawrence. The cycle is divided into two zones, an upper and lower. The scenes from the life of St. Stephen, the Protomartyr (first martyr) occupy the upper zone, while the scenes from the life of St. Lawrence occupy the lower zone.

In the vaults are portraits of the four evangelists.  Images of doctors of the church and prophets of the Old Testament decorate the areas surrounding the windows and doors.

Fra Angelico and Collaborators, Vault
Italian, 1448-1449
Vatican City State, Vatican Museums, Chapel of Nicholas V

The scenes from the lives of the two martyred deacons are shown in parallel. They are paired in so far as pairing is possible. For instance, the scenes of their ordination to the diaconate (by St. Peter for Stephen and by St. Sixtus II for Lawrence) are placed in the upper and lower zones respectively. In this article I will only describe the scenes from the life of St. Lawrence.

The Ordination of Lawrence to the Diaconate by Pope Sixtus II. The seated Pope, anachronistically shown wearing the Papal tiara and a cope and with the features of Nicholas V, places into the hands of the kneeling Lawrence the paten and chalice which it is the deacons function to present during the Mass. These are key symbols of the office of service which is particular to the deacon.
Ordination of St. Lawrence

Pope Sixtus Presenting Lawrence with the Treasures of the Church. According to the legendary biography of St. Lawrence, 3  Sixtus presented Lawrence with the valuables of the Church of Rome on August 6, 258, just prior to his own arrest by the officers of the Emperor Valerian.   The Pope was martyered himself.  According to the legend, as he was taken away he told the distraught Lawrence, that he (Lawrence) would suffer even more horribly within three days.
Pope Sixtus II Presenting Lawrence with the Treasures of the Church

And, in the painting we are presented with a combination interior and exterior view of the building in which the event is taking place. We can see that the Roman soldiers are already knocking on the door (left side of the painting) as one of the assisting clergy turns and looks anxiously in that direction.

St. Lawrence Distributing the Goods of the Church to the Poor. Here St. Lawrence is seen in the portico of a basilican building distributing alms to an assortment of the poor of Rome. There are men, women and children represented in the group, a cross section of the Roman poor.
Detail of St. Lawrence Distributing the Goods of the Church showing the effects of the recent restoration

 St. Lawrence Before the Emperor Valerian.

According to the legend of St. Lawrence he was captured by Roman soldiers and brought before the Emperor who asked him to surrender the valuables that had been confided to him by the Pope. Lawrence asked for three days in which to collect it and this was granted. During those days he sought out the poor of the city and at the end of his time of reprieve he presented them to the Emperor as the true valuables of the Church. This enraged the Emperor who ordered a particularly nasty execution for Lawrence.

 St. Lawrence in Prison and Martyrdom of St. Lawrence. In prison, while awaiting his execution, Lawrence continued his mission of charity and love. He cured a blind fellow prisoner. This scene is displayed to the left side of the picture of his martyrdom as a view through the window of the prison. And, as previously noted, his martyrdom by slow roasting is depicted at the right side of the painting. This area of the fresco was seriously damaged early in its existence and was repainted in the 16th century.

St. Lawrence Healing the Blind Prisoner and Martyrdom of St. Lawrence

Throughout the cycle Lawrence is highly prominent due to his clothing (the dalmatic) and its characteristic pinkish color. Fra Angelico’s treatment of this vestment is unusually beautiful, as the surface of the garment is covered by tiny depictions of gold flames, as if the whole garment was covered in gold embroidery.

Detail of St. Lawrence Distributing the Goods of the Church showing the effects of the recent restoration

The flames remind us both of Lawrence’s terrible ordeal and of the fire of the Holy Spirit with which he was filled. In recent years this embroidery seems to have been copied for the Papal Liturgical Office in a red chasuble (the vestment proper to a priest) worn, appropriately, on Pentecost 2006 by Pope Benedict XVI.

This chapel is the sole reminding evidence of the work done by Fra Angelico and his team of assistants, which included the painters Benozzo Gozzoli and Zenobi Strozzi, in Rome and it is a precious survivor of the 15th century in a building that was the object of embellishment by subsequent Popes, particularly during the 16th century. In the 1990s the chapel was restored and the paintings were cleaned. In addition to minimizing the effects of some cracking that has occurred over the centuries, the restoration has brightened and clarified the images as the image below suggests. 4
Partial view of the Ordination of Saint Lawrence after restoration
1. Much of the background information for this article may be found in the following book and websites:

• Innocenzo Venchi, Renate L. Colella, Arnold Nesselrath, Carlo Giantomassi and Donatella Zari, Fra Angelico and the Chapel of Nicholas V, Recent Restorations of the Vatican Museums, Vol. III, Vatican City State, Edizioni Musei Vaticani, 1999.

• Commentary on St. Lwrence from a professor of Moral Theology.

• Information on some of the still extant churches named in honor of St. Lawrence on the website of the Pontifical College of North America

2. Innocenzo Venchi, Renate L. Colella, Arnold Nesselrath, Carlo Giantomassi and Donatella Zari, Fra Angelico and the Chapel of Nicholas V, Recent Restorations of the Vatican Museums, Vol. III, Vatican City State, Edizioni Musei Vaticani, 1999, p. 28.

3. The life of St. Lawrence best known in the Middle Ages was the mixture of fact and legend found in The Golden Legend (Legenda Aurea), Compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, 1275, Englished by William Caxton, 1483, Vol IV, pp.98-107.  The text can be accessed at

4. A small amount of information and photographs of the restored frescoes can be found on the website of the Vatican Museums at

A virtual tour is available at

© M. Duffy, 2011, updated 2019

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