In Rome on the Via Tiburtina, the natal day Not his birthday but the day he died and was "born" into Heaven of blessed Lawrence, Archdeacon. During the persecution of Valerian he was imprisoned, tortured, and beaten repeatedly with clubs, lead-tipped scourges, and red-hot plates. Finally he was roasted on a gridiron and became a martyr. – Roman Martyrology for August 10
St. Lawrence was a deacon in Rome who was martyred in the mid-3rd century. One of the earliest images of a non-biblical saint is a 4th-century medallion showing him tortured on a gridiron like the one pictured above and in this
stained glass window.1
At the end of the 4th century he was celebrated in Prudentius' Peristephanon, which was followed in most details by subsequent works including the Golden Legend. It is in Prudentius that we first encounter the saint's supposed comment to the torturers, "This part of my body has been burned long enough; turn it round and try what your hot god of fire has done."2
The earliest portrait of the saint that I have actually seen is a 5th-century fresco that portrays him as a youthful man, tonsured and wearing the dalmatic of a deacon. The youth, the tonsure, and the dalmatic will stay with him through sixteen more centuries of religious art, with only a few exceptions (example without a dalmatic, example with lush hair). Sometimes the saint will also be pictured with a maniple, a length of cloth that was worn over the left forearm by deacons and priests at Mass, as in the first picture at right. In one case that I have seen, the artist managed to sneak in a bit of the "stole," another vestment that deacons wear at Mass underneath the dalmatic.3
The fresco painter apparently did not include a gridiron. Some of the plaster has fallen away at the bottom, so we cannot be sure. But by the 6th century, the saint is strongly associated with the gridiron, as in the first image at left. In the ensuing centuries, it is by far his most common attribute (example). In most portraits it is shown in a diminutive size as a mere attribute, and in one painting it is reduced to just a grid pattern on the dais beneath Lawrence's throne.
In the Golden Legend the executioners also apply red-hot pitchforks to Lawrence's body, so this becomes another attribute, sometimes used instead of the gridiron (second picture at right).
Another attribute is based on two of the miracles ascribed to St. Lawrence. One involved a heavy golden chalice that the emperor Henry II had given to the Church of St. Lawrence in Eichstätt. When Henry died and his misdeeds were piled up on one side of the scale, the devils hoped to gain his soul. But then St. Lawrence put the chalice on the other side, and Henry was safe. In anger, one of the devils broke off a piece of the chalice, which he referred to as a bowl. In the other miracle a deacon in St. Lawrence's church in Milan dropped a crystal chalice. It broke into pieces, but upon the deacon's prayers St. Lawrence reasssembled it as good as new. Owing to these legends, in some images the saint holds a chalice-like bowl, sometimes with a broken-off piece, as in the third image on the right. Another influence on the chalice attribute is Augustine's remark that St. Lawrence served the church in Rome and "it was there that he administered the sacred chalice of Christ's blood; there that he shed his own blood for the name of Christ."
In this 6th-century mosaic a deacon possibly identifiable as St. Lawrence carries a processional cross. Crosses are so common in saints' portraits that we might pass over this one in silence, but it may be significant that processional and hand crosses appear so often in images of St. Lawrence (example). In Prudentius, Lawrence stood weeping at the foot of the cross on which Pope Sixtus was crucified. From the cross the Pope said, "I go before you, my brother; you too will follow me three days from now."
In several of the pictures referenced on this page Lawrence's dalmatic is red. In discussing Zurbarán's portrait (first picture at right) Lorite Cruz suggests that the color reflects the fact that red vestments are worn at Mass on the feast days of martyrs.4
PORTRAITS WITH OTHER SAINTS
As a deacon St. Lawrence is sometimes paired with St. Stephen, the first deacon martyr. In other portraits he will be found alongside saints such as Marina and Cosmas and Damian.
In the Golden Legend when the Emperor Decius had Pope Sixtus arrested he entrusted the Church's treasure to Lawrence, who then distributed it among the poor. Furious that the treasure had slipped from his hands, Decius had Lawrence imprisoned, flogged, and burned alive on a gridiron. This narrative is the subject of the Fra Angelico frescos on St. Lawrence in the Vatican's Niccoline Chapel.
In a more common version of the legend, when the Emperor demands the treasure Lawrence brings him the poor people to whom he had given it and tells him they are the real treasure of the Church (image). This episode is also found in Prudentius and in St. Ambrose's De Officiis, II, 28, ¶141. Its implications for political theory are explored in Veronese's 1565 Martyrdom of St. Lawrence.
Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2016-10-16, 2018-01-13, 2019-09-22.
Jacopo Palma the Younger, The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, 1581-82 (See description page)