This article was originally published on the feast of St Lawrence five years ago. I have made a number of small changes and corrected a small factual error.
|The Basilica of Saint Lawrence outside-the-Walls, in an eighteenth century engraving by Giuseppe Vasi.|
Two private chapels of the Popes are also dedicated to him, San Lorenzo ‘in Palatio’ at the Lateran, and the Niccoline Chapel at the Vatican. The former was built in the mid-8th century, and after various restorations and embellishments, became a Papal chapel about three centuries later; rebuilt by Nicholas III (1277-80), it now survives only in part within a building known as the Scala Sancta, across the street from the Pope’s cathedral. The chapel’s nickname ‘Sancta Sanctorum – the Holy of Holies’, does not come from its status as a Papal chapel, but from the amazing collection of relics formerly kept therein: among them, a piece of the grill on which St Lawrence was roasted alive, and some parts of his body.
In the 330-year period from 1048 to 1378, the Popes spent roughly 250 years outside of Rome; after so long a period of neglect and partial abandonment, and two massive fires in the 14th century, most of the vast complex of buildings around the Lateran was in no state to be lived in. The Popes therefore took up residence at the Vatican, and have been there ever since. In 1447, Nicholas V built a new chapel within the Vatican, and commissioned the Dominican painter Fra Angelico to paint the walls with stories of the two deacon martyrs, St Stephen and St Lawrence, to whom the chapel is jointly dedicated.
|The Martyrdom of Saint Stephen, on the left wall of the Chapel of Nicholas V, by Fra Angelico. The martyrdom of Saint Lawrence is directly beneath it, but the part that shows Lawrence on the grill in the lower right hand corner is ruined.|
In the office of St. Stephen, the third antiphon of Lauds (partially quoting Psalm 62, with which it is sung), reads “Adhaesit anima mea post te, quia caro mea lapidata est pro te, Deus meus. – My soul hath stuck close to Thee, because my flesh was stoned for Thy sake, my God.” In the office of St. Lawrence, this same antiphon is changed to “Adhaesit anima mea post te, quia caro mea igne cremata est pro te, Deus meus. – My soul hath stuck close to Thee, because my flesh was burnt for Thy sake, my God.” The artistic pairing of the two done so beautifully by Fra Angelico is also found twice in the Sancta Sanctorum which the Niccoline Chapel replaced, in the mosaics over the altar and in the frescoes that adorn its walls.
|Saint Lawrence in the 11th century mosaics over the altar of the Sancta Sanctorum.|
|The relics of St. Stephen being laid to rest in the tomb of St. Lawrence, by Lorenzo di Niccolò, ca. 1412.; |
from the Brooklyn Museum.
|The martyrdom of St. Sixtus and his deacons, from a 14th century manuscript of the lives of the saints.|
|The Madonna and Child with Ss Sixtus II and Barbara, generally known as “the Sistine Madonna”, by Raphael Sanzio, 1513-14; commissioned for the monastery of San Sisto in Piacenza, which had relics of both Saints.|
The tenth is the feast of Lawrence himself, the day of his martyrdom by being roasted alive on a grill; the Byzantine tradition, which devoted the sixth of August to the Transfiguration centuries before the Latin church, commemorates Sixtus, his deacons, and Romanus all together along with Lawrence himself on this day. The story of his martyrdom is told thus in the Roman Breviary of 1529. (Valerian appears as an official under the previous persecuting emperor, Decius.)
And Decius said to the blessed Lawrence: Sacrifice to the gods. And he answered, “I offer myself as a sacrifice to God, unto the odor of sweetness, for a contrite spirit is a sacrifice to God.” But the executioners pressed on in adding the coals, and placing them under the grill… . The blessed Lawrence said, “Learn, wretched Valerian, how great is the might of my Lord, for thy coals bring me refreshment, but to thee eternal torment; for he knows that I denied not his holy name when accused, I confessed Christ when asked, I gave thanks while being roasted.” … And all those present began to marvel, since Decius had commanded him to be roasted alive. But with a most comely countenance he said, “I give thee thanks, Lord Jesus Christ, who hast deigned to strengthen me.” And lifting up his eyes to Valerian, he said, “Behold wretched man, thou hast roasted one side; turn me over, and eat.” Then giving thanks to the Lord, he said, “I give thee thanks, Lord Jesus Christ, because I have merited to enter thy gates.” And saying this he gave up his spirit.
It is certainly true, however, that there is much confusion about Hippolytus’ history; when Pope St Damasus I (366-84) placed an epitaph upon his tomb recounting his martyrdom, he stated that he himself “relied on purely oral tradition, which he does not guarantee: ‘Damasus tells these things which he has heard; it is Christ who maketh proof of them.’ ” (Loeb Classical Library, The Poems of Prudentius, p. 304, footnote) Prudentius also attests that he personally was healed of various ailments more than once while praying at Hippolytus’ tomb. In the Communicantes of the traditional Ambrosian canon, Sixtus, Lawrence and Hippolytus are named (in that order) immediately after the twelve Apostles, indicating how great the devotion to them was in the see of Milan in antiquity.
|The Saint Hippolytus triptych by Dietric Bouts the Elder, ca. 1470.|