Today we celebrate the feast of St. Lawrence, a deacon and third century martyr.
St. Lawrence was one of the seven deacons of Rome who served as the Pope’s ministers during Holy Mass and as his administrators to the people of Rome.
There is little historical evidence remaining on St. Lawrence. His Acts had been lost by the time of St. Augustine in the 4th century, yet, Pope St. Leo the Great and St. Augustine wrote about him and his martyrdom. The tradition of the Church states that he was a native of northern Spain and was ordained by Pope St. Sixtus II. The Pope made Lawrence responsible for the distribution of the Church’s alms.
St. Lawrence died during a persecution by the Emperor Valerian (circa 258). His death occurred a few days after the martyrdom of Pope Sixtus II and four deacons (Januarius, Vincent, Magnus, and Stephen).
Art historian Carl Brandon Strehlke (see note at bottom) has mentioned that there is controversy over the specific date of his martyrdom. Some accounts state that Lawrence was martyred under the emperor Decius (AD 249 – 251) and others insist that it was under the reign of Valerian (253 – 260).
Regardless, the Church’s tradition states that he was martyred soon after the emperor Valerian issued an edict in early August, 257. This edict required all Catholic bishops, priests, and deacons to be denied trial and be immediately put to death.
As the Pope and four of his deacons were led to their deaths, Lawrence is purported to have said: “Where are you going, Holy Father, without your son? Where, O Bishop, without your archdeacon? Before you never approached the altar of sacrifice without your servant, and now you are going without me?” Pope St. Sixtus commented that Lawrence would soon follow him.
Valerian’s administrators came to Lawrence and demanded access to the wealth of the Church. He asked for a few days to assemble it, and subsequently, distributed much of the Church’s treasury to the poor.
The money transfer to the Roman government was to occur on August 10th. Lawrence led the prefect and guards to a room within the Vatican. Upon opening the door and with the force of a saint he declared: “Behold the jewels of the Church.” The room contained some of Rome’s blind, poor, sick and maimed!
On the same day Valerian ordered that Lawrence be taken out and slowly martyred in payment for his cheeky behavior towards imperial dignity. St. Lawrence refused to renounce our holy Faith, and was roasted on a gridiron used for cattle. Legend says that he was of good humor to the very end, at one point saying to his executioners: “I’m done on this side. You can turn me over now!”
Many centuries later his story of faith and heroism was artistically proclaimed to the faithful. In 1447 Pope Nicholas V selected Fra Angelico to decorate a Vatican chapel dedicated to the two famous martyrs and deacons of the Church: the protomartyr St. Stephen of Jerusalem and St. Lawrence of Rome.
Fra Angelico successfully linked the narratives of their stories together so that they convincingly expressed the main elements of each saint’s life. They are catechesis as well as beautiful art. Angelico’s painting portrays St. Lawrence in an exquisite rose colored dalmatic (the garment which signifies the deacon’s service and loyalty to his bishop). The fresco is approximately 9 by 7 feet and was painted between 1447 – 1449.
Note: Carl Brandon Strehlke’s comments on St. Lawrence are to be found in Kanter and Palladino. Fra Angelico. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Yale University Press, 2005.
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