St. Lawrence, Deacon and Martyr, Pray For Us!

SAINTS & ART: St. Lawrence has been venerated in the Church ever since his death in the persecution of Valerian on Aug. 10, 258.

Jean Baptiste de Champaigne, “The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence,” ca. 1660
Jean Baptiste de Champaigne, “The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence,” ca. 1660 (photo: Public Domain)

Ask most people what they know about St. Lawrence and they will mention his being martyred on a gridiron. We know he was a deacon who was martyred and killed on Aug. 10; many of the other details, while passed on over the centuries, may be harder to establish.

He died in A.D. 258 during the persecution of Emperor Valerian. To some extent, the persecution was connected with internal politics within the Empire, which included the resurgence of paganism. Remember that, in Rome, the state and the Roman gods were united: refusal to worship them was taken as disloyalty to the Empire. For polytheists, that was no problem: if you have multiple gods, a few more or less can be accommodated. 

One of the most vicious third-century persecutions of Christians had occurred a few years earlier, under Decius (249-251), in which Valerian may have had a hand. Valerian’s own persecution began in 257, exiling the clergy, banning Christians from holding assemblies or entering subterranean areas like catacombs. Its rigors intensified the following year: those who would not demonstrate allegiance to paganism would be punished and all clergy were to be executed. Pope Sixtus II died Aug. 6, prophesying that Lawrence, his deacon, would soon follow. A month later, in Carthage, Cyprian was martyred. 

According to tradition Lawrence, as deacon and keeper of the temporal property of the Roman Church, was ordered by the Roman prefect to hand over the Church’s treasures to the state. He supposedly asked for time to inventory them. He then returned with a crowd of the poor and indigent in train, the “treasures” of the Church which set off Lawrence’s martyrdom. Tradition also says Lawrence was roasted alive on a gridiron, some even alleging he remarked that he was “done on one side” and needed to be turned over.

These traditions, which in part come from St. Ambrose (whose reign as bishop of Milan occurred about 125 years after Lawrence’s death), are said to have been passed along by oral rather than written sources and so some question the historical reliability of details. There is no doubt Lawrence was a deacon and that he died in the persecutions of Valerian on Aug. 10, 258. His cult began at the time of his death and has continued in the Church.

Valerian died in 260 and his anti-Christian edicts were soon canceled. 

The Flemish Baroque painter Jean Baptiste de Champaigne (1631-1681) depicted the martyrdom in an oil painting from about 1660. The central and brightest figure in the painting is St. Lawrence, chained to his traditional gridiron, the flames kindled underneath. The garments taken from him lie in a pile next to him. Two helmeted Roman soldiers press him down, while two executioners stoke the flames. Lawrence looks up and presumably points at the Prefect, sitting on an observation throne, various Roman soldiers scattered about, one official on the Prefect’s left looking bored at the length of the proceedings. Two cherubs hover overhead with garlands of victory, including a laurel crown, to bestow on the martyr. In keeping with Baroque conventions, contrasts of light and shadow are strong, classical architecture (which would have been historically accurate) abound, and the physiology of most of the figures is robust and well-developed. 

De Champaigne’s painting, measuring about 3 feet by 2 feet, is on exhibit in the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

In Christian iconography, St. Lawrence is also sometimes identified with a broken chalice. As a deacon, he would have distributed Holy Communion. Two legends are associated with this attribute. One is that Emperor Henry II gave the Church of St. Lawrence in Eichstätt (Bavaria) a golden chalice. When Henry died and was judged, it was said that the devils expected to capture his soul by the weight of his sins, but when St. Lawrence put the chalice on the divine scales of justice, Henry was saved. The devil, in fury, broke a piece of the “bowl.” The other legend, from Milan, reports that a deacon dropped a crystal chalice that shattered but, after invoking St. Lawrence, the chalice was restored.

St. Lawrence is also sometimes depicted in art with St. Stephen, the first deacon.

(For more information on St. Lawrence, see here, here and here.)