Saint Lawrence, whose feast day occurs today, is considered one of the most important saints of Christianity. Especially, in Rome where he is considered to be the third patron of the city, after Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Not much is known about his early life. He was born in Huesca in Spain in 225, as a young man, he was sent to Zaragoza to learn of theology, classics and humanities, it is here that he met the future Pope Sixtus II, with whom he went to Rome. On 30 August 257, Sixtus was elected Pope and he made Lawrence one of the seven archdeacons of Rome, a group of deacons serving over 1500 people among the poor, sick and widow. In August 258, Emperor Valerian issued that all bishops, priests and deacons of Rome had to be seized and executed. Pope Sixtus II was celebrating the Eucharist in the cemetery of Saint Callixtus when he was killed, before that, he gave all the riches of the Church (mostly documents and eucharistic vessels) to Saint Lawrence, for protection. The prefect of Rome issued a three days timeline for him to hand those riches, but the saint sold them and gave the money to the poor he always helped and put the documents in a safe place, the benefitted were the widow, children, crippled... and when the prefect finally met him he asked where the riches were, Lawrence said, the poor are our riches, having taken some with him, and the crown of the Church are the virgins and widows, the prefect went furious and after a trial by the Temple of Antoninus and Miranda, in the Roman Forum, he was sentenced to a slow and painful death. Saint Lawrence helped the poor and saved the Church's earthly possessions, so that even more may await for us in heaven. The night before he died, he baptised all those who were prisoners with him. He was finally martyred on a gridiron on 10 August 258, according to legend (and Saint Ambrose) before dying he claimed I am well done, turn me over! He died the death of a martyr for his faith and love of God, as well as for the certainty of the resurrection and salvation given by Our Lord Jesus Christ. His story, written by Saint Ambrose, recounted in the Medieval Golden Legend, as well as by later churchmen, became widely popular throughout Europe, Emperor Constantine even erected an oratory in his honour. Several churches were then dedicated to him, both in the continent, as well as in England. His feast occurs on 10 August, according to the General Roman Calendar and that of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. He is also known to have performed miracles, both before and after his death, according to Saint Gregory of Tours, a priest named Sanctulus had his church attacked and destroyed, during the rebuilding food soon ran over, but after praying to the martyr a loaf of white bread appeared, unfortunately it seemed not enough, but by breaking it multiplied... for ten days! Interestingly, the night of his feast, it is a tradition in Rome to watch the Perseid Meteor Shower, the Notte di San Lorenzo. The story of Lawrence has traces everywhere through the Eternal City.
The main shrine to the saint is certainly the Basilica of Saint Lawrence outside the Walls, built in the 580s by Pope Pelagius on the site of the small oratory Emperor Constantine dedicated to the saint, later in the 13th century Pope Honorius III enlarged the church, the body of Saint Lawrence was interred in the crypt, right under the high altar, with the stone on which the body was first laid. The splendid basilica remains virtually untouched from the 13th century, the portico is decorated with beautiful frescoes from the 13th century depicting the life of the saint and stunning cosmati mosaics, which can also be found in the interior’s beautiful sanctuary. Two antique gospel and epistle pulpits stands on the two sides of the basilica, in the east end, the quire, raised by some steps in order to host the saint’s crypt, is opened by a triumphal arch and baldacchino under which is the high altar, right above the saint’s shrine. The triumphal arch hosts a beautiful 6th century Byzantine mosaic of Christ in glory with saints. Franciscan friars serve this church.
The Basilica of San Lorenzo in Panisperna, was supposedly erected under Emperor Constantine on the site of St. Lawrence’s martyrdom. In the fifth century it became one of the stational churches of Rome that the Pope visited on its titular feast, the basilica was enlarged by Pope Boniface VIII in the 1300s when a Benedictine abbey was annexed to it, later passed on to the Poor Clares. Presently, since 1896 the Franciscans serve the church. The present building was redecorated in the Baroque style by Pope Gregory XIII in 1575 under the watch of Carlo Rainaldi. A 16th century fresco above the high altar by Pasquale Cati, a pupil of Michelangelo, shows the Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, the crucifix is from the 13th century church. The name Panisperna derives from a local bakery.
The third site in terms of importance is certainly the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Lucina, originally land was granted in the 4th century by a Roman matron named Lucina for Christians to erect a church. In 440 the new church was consecrated by Pope Sixtus III, with the new Titutlus Lucinae. In the 12th century the church was reconstructed in the Romanesque style by Pope Paschal II, in the apse is his marble throne commemorating the translation of the relics of Saint Lawrence in this Basilica, which hosts the gridiron, the instrument of martyrdom of the saint, now located in the first chapel in the north side. Later, in 1606 Pope Paul V granted the church to a small order of lay canons, who preserved the original building but completely restored the interior in the Baroque style, the aisles were turned into family chapels. The flat ceiling was decorated with an Apotheosis of Saint Lawrence. The church has some impressive artworks, such as the dramatic Crucifixion altarpiece by Guido Reni or the Fonseca Chapel, designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, for the physician of Pope Innocent X Pamphilj, Bernini also sculpted the busts in the chapel. Interestingly, Charles Stuart, an officer in the Papal Army and the son of the Stuart “Young Pretender”, is buried in the basilica.
The Basilica of San Lorenzo in Miranda, located in the Roman Forum was built on the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, the site of Saint Lawrence’s trial. In 1430 Pope Martinus V granted the church to one of the city’s confraternities, while in 1536 the Medieval building was restored and brought back to its classical form, in 1602 it was redecorated in the Baroque style. The church hosts several masterpieces, including those by the great Baroque masters Pietro da Cortona and Domenichino. The name In Miranda, derives from the good view of the Forum the church had. The façade of the church is that of the original temple!
Another site and another church dedicated to the saint in Rome is San Lorenzo in Fonte, built on the house of the centurion Ippolitus, where Lawrence was kept prisoner and where he baptised several other prisoners, the name In Fonte derives from the miraculous spring that gushed out of the earth to aid with the baptisms. The present church was remodelled in the 1600s in the Baroque style.
The Basilica of San Lorenzo in Damaso, was presumably built on a former pagan temple, the church is first accounted during the synod of Pope Symmachus in 499 as Titulus Damasi, in fact, according to tradition a basilica church was built by Pope Damasus I in his residence. It is here that Saint Lawrence performed his duties as deacon. In the late 15th century, the original basilica was incorporated, and (probably) redesigned by Bramante or Giuliano da Sangallo and Andrea Bregno, in the new Renaissance Palazzo della Cancelleria, commissioned by the Cardinal Riario, a nephew of Pope Sixtus IV Della Rovere. The altarpiece, a Coronation of the Virgin with Saints, is by Mannerist artist Federico Zuccari. Another masterpiece is the Holy Conception Chapel by Baroque master, Pietro da Cortona. Pope Damasus' relics are hosted beneath the high altar, as in every early Christian titulus.
Near the Vatican is the lovely church of San Lorenzo in Piscibus, founded in the 12th century as Sanctus Laurentius in Portico Maiore, according to legend, on the site of a sixth century church dedicated to Saint Stephen. The ancient basilica destroyed by barbarian invasions (and hosting a community of virgins) was replaced by a Romanesque building rededicated to Saint Lawrence which incredibly survives in its original shape to this day. Interestingly, the Church was redecorated in the Baroque style in the 1700s under the patronage of the Cesi family, while a century later the original Medieval appearance was restored. The building, a rare example in Rome, is a fine example of fine central-Italian late Medieval church, with bricks walls, ancient Roman columns, three naves and a lovely Romanesque bell tower. It is incredible that a church like this exists within a quarter of mile of St. Peter’s Baroque glory. The name In Piscibus derives from a near market of fish.
Saint Lawrence has always been a prominent figure in Christian iconography. The earliest depictions of the saint, from the fifth century, just show him dressed in a dalmatic, the vestment of deacons, often associated with martyrs. By the sixth century he begins to be visually associated with the gridiron. According to the Medieval account of the lives of saints, the Golden Legend, Saint Lawrence is also associated with red-hot pitchforks. In some depictions he is shown holding a book, representing his patronage of librarians after his effort of protecting the documents of the Church, or indeed with a cross or a palm branch, other symbols of martyrs. The Renaissance was a particularly prolific time for artworks regarding Saint Lawrence, the 13th century with the life of the saints in St. Lawrence’s outside the Walls are certainly an exception, but until then the saint was mostly depicted as a portrait or during the martyrdom. The pontificate of Pope Nicholas V, who famously moved from the Lateran Palace, (where the Sancta Sanctorum Chapel was also dedicated to Saint Lawrence and decorated with twelfth century frescoes with the story of his life) to the Vatican, saw a great rebirth of the arts, just when the Renaissance style was developing, and around 1450, for the Jubilee Year, two artists from Florence, Fra Angelico and Benozzo Gozzoli, were called to decorate the new papal chapel, the Cappella Niccolina, with stories from the life of Saint Lawrence and Saint Stephen, shown in parallel. The cycle is divided into two sections, the upper one with the life of Stephen, the Protomartyr, and the lower zone, with the life of Saint Lawrence. In the vaults, as it happened at the time, are the four evangelists, while doctors of the church and the prophets decorated the areas surrounding the windows. The style is incredibly rich, as opposed to previous works by Far Angelico, possibly thanks to the influence of Benozzo Gozzoli. A characteristic of these two artists is how Medieval iconography and language marry perfectly with Renaissance dynamism, the complexity of detail and the imaginative backgrounds. The five scenes represent the life of the saint.
In the first, is his ordination as deacon at the hands of Saint Peter, the scene is set in an imaginary St. Peter’s Basilica. A wonderfully dressed Saint Peter in a splendid cope and a rich tiara, also a portrait of Pope Nicholas V, is handing Lawrence the chalice and pathen, symbols of the ordained ministry and of the sacraments an ordained minister has to administer (although not yet in that case). Interesting is the fact Saint Lawrence is wearing a rose dalmatic that he will wear for the whole cycle, rose being a combination of purple, representing suffering and penitence and red representing martyrdom, making together the colour of the expectation of joy, whereas the other deacons wear blue ones, and the others in the scenes simple long Medieval surplices or copes.
In the second scene Saint Lawrence received the wealth (through an acolyte) of the Church from Pope Sixtus for protection, wearing a blue-damask cope, the scene is set in a beautiful Renaissance architecture, with loggias and perfectly balanced shapes and forms, taken from classical Rome. An interesting detail is the porch on the left, admired by two characters that don’t belong to the scene, in the lunette is a small relief of God the Father. I find fascinating the dynamic anatomy of the legs of the two by-standers, a Renaissance touch, as much as the cypresses popping from behind the loggia.
The distribution of the alms to the poor, in order to protect the Church’s patrimony, is set in a Renaissance basilica-like building, the perspective plays with the eye and the building seems incredibly deep. The saint, now ready for his mission, takes central place in this iconography of charity.
Lawrence's trial before the Emperor is set in a spectacularly classical architecture, covered by a brocade damask cloth, the detail of the clothing is a characteristic of 15th century Florentine painting, remindful of the Adoration of the Magi by Gentile da Fabriano or the Magi Chapel in the Medici Palazzo.
Finally, his martyrdom where quite traditionally, and dramatically the saint is burned at the stake, while the Emperor looks on the scene from a tribune set in a classical architecture. This wonderful work, is a perfect testimony both of the life of this martyr but also of the devotion attributed to him, also at the highest levels of (in this case) the Renaissance Church, as one of the most beloved Roman saints. One who sacrificed for the Church, for its patrimony and who preferred Christ to pagan gods and the poor to the riches of the Empire.
Another favourite work of mine is the beautiful Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence in the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence, a Mannerist marvel by Agnolo Bronzino, the breath-taking scene dating to 1569, during the Counter-Reformation, is an absolute masterpiece, chaos and confusion surround the central scene, the weakness of paganism and *the* wrong belief fall before the strength of the Christian faith, Saint Lawrence dies for God, but he does so peacefully, on the stake, he has the calm of salvation, whereas the temporarily safe ones can't find peace in the disquietness of the spirit.
Saint Lawrence was a popular saint throughout Europe, throughout the continent (and beyond) churches were being dedicated to this martyr of Christ. My favourite two outside Rome, can be found in Florence and London. The first one being the Basilica of San Lorenzo. Having been founded during the fourth century on what was then a small hill, the monticulus Sancti Laurentii, it was dedicated in 393 to Saint Lawrence at the presence of Saint Ambrose and Saint Zenobi. For three hundred years it was also the cathedral, in 1059 the church was enlarged by the future Pope Nicholas II who was the then bishop, Gherardo di Borgona who also created a chapter. In the fifteenth century the basilica, which became the Medici’s family church, was enlarged by Filippo Brunelleschi who redesigned the nave in the new Renaissance style and the sacristy. Michelangelo designed a new sacristy which became also the place of rest of some of the Medici family members until the 1700s with the building of the gigantic chapel of the princes, but most still used the crypt. The church is adorned with splendid works of art, such as a magnificent Annunciation by Filippo Lippi and the Bronzino Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence. A new library, the Biblioteca Laurenziana, one of the best refurbished of Europe, was also erected in the Renaissance and was nonetheless dedicated to the Roman saint.
Another church named after the martyr is in London, it is the charming Saint Lawrence Jewry, dedicated in the twelfth century, it took its name by being near the former Medieval Jewish Ghetto, concentrated near the street named Old Jewry. Interestingly, by 1280 it was under the jurisdiction of Balliol College, Oxford. Sir Thomas More was known to have preached in this church. But in 1666, the fire of London destroyed the church, it was finally rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren between 1670 and 1687 in the English Baroque style. Another testimony of the widespread cult of the Roman martyr.
As I already mentioned earlier in the post, Saint Lawrence is one of the most important saints here, I find it moving that we remember and honour someone who died for justice and his faith, if there is so much greatness here for people of good will, we cannot even imagine what awaits them beyond, but really, we do. It is sainthood, which is not having some special superpowers but to be as near as possible to the grace and light of God. We remember the martyr Lawrence who died for Christ and the poor instead of living for false gods and wealth, especially in the light of the so many persecuted Christians, both lay and ordained, dying for He that hung on the Cross, in the hope and certainty of the resurrection. Saint Lawrence, ora pro nobis, Jesu mercy, Mary pray.
When Lawrence was led out to die,
Love made him prodigal of life,
No armour would he use but faith
Against the persecutor’s strife.
The first of seven chosen men
Selected at the Pope’s behest,
A deacon’s office to fulfil,
In virtue he surpassed the rest.
He was a leader in the fight,
Although no sword hung by his side,
And with a smile in face of death,
He could the torturer deride.
We praise your triumph here on earth,
So, holy Lawrence, lend your aid,
May each of us your favour feel,
Receiving grace for which we prayed.
For all the care with which you served
And loved the city’s poor in Rome,
What lustre must enhance your crown
For ever in the Father’s home!
To Father, Son, and Spirit blest,
Be honour, homage and renown,
Who will reward your prayers for us
By granting an eternal crown. Amen
Tune, DEUS TUORUM MILITUM
Tune, DEUS TUORUM MILITUM