Friday, August 05, 2022

The Cultural Impact of the Feast of Saint Lawrence

Master of the Acts of Mercy,  “Martyrdom of St. Lawrence”, ca. 1460-1470

As can be seen from the fact that it had its own vigil and its own octave, the feast of St. Lawrence (August 10) was once one of the most important holy days of the year. Gregory DiPippo has ably described the liturgies surrounding the great deacon martyr here and here. Today, in anticipation of the feast, we explore the cultural impact of the cult of St. Lawrence.

The Story of Saint Lawrence
Lawrence, said by some accounts to be a Spaniard, was the archdeacon of Rome, was martyred in A.D. 258. During the persecution of the Emperor Valerian, his mentor Pope St. Sixtus II was apprehended and sentenced to die on August 6. Filled with tears, Lawrence asked the holy Pontiff: “Where are you going, Father? Take your son with you, that together we may shed our blood for Christ’s sake!” Pope Sixtus consoled him and said: “Know that in three days after my death, you will follow me.”
Lawrence was then summoned before the Prefect of Rome and commanded to hand over the treasures of the Church which, as archdeacon of the city, were in his care. Lawrence replied that he needed three days to get them in order. During that time, he distributed all the Church’s wealth to the poor. Then, on August 10, he assembled all the poor to the prefect and declared, “Behold the treasures of the Church.” Enraged, the prefect ordered him to be slowly roasted alive on a gridiron. The unconquered Lawrence, however, still had the last word. As he was being tortured over the fire, he said to his tormentors: “You can turn me over; I am done on this side.”
Bernardo Strozzi, “St. Lawrence Distributing the Treasures of the Church”, ca. 1625
Lawrence the Patron
Not to be outdone in black humor, the Church has made Lawrence the patron saint of chefs and comedians. The saint is also a patron of brewers since the manner of his martyrdom reminded medieval beermakers of the way that malt is dried. He is a patron of the poor because as a deacon he cared for them; and he patronizes archivists and librarians because he reputedly protected the Church’s written documents from the Emperor. Finally, he is one of the patron saints on Canada, for Jacques Cartier discovered a large gulf and river on his feast day in 1535 and named them the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the St. Lawrence River.
Gulf of St. Lawrence
Lawrence in Language
Lawrence’s courageous testimony to Christ has trickled into our secular language as well. The name for the mirage-like waves that shimmer up off a road on a hot day is a laurence. The most likely reason for the designation is that the feast falls on August 10, during the dog days of August when such heat shimmers are common. But given the specifics of Lawrence’s martyrdom, the name is doubly appropriate.
And because of the tears he shed before Pope Sixtus, the name “St. Laurence’s tears” is used to designate the Perseids, the meteor showers that usually fall between August 6 (Sixtus’ feast day) and August 10. It is worth remembering, as we gaze up at this lovely astronomical event, that Lawrence shed no tears during his own agony but over the fact that he could not suffer martyrdom with his beloved spiritual father.
Not all references in English to the saint or his feast are the result of deep devotion. A “Lawrence” or “Laurence” is defined as a “personification of indolence.” “Laurence bids wages” means “to be lazy,” while “a lazy Laurence” is a “reproachful designation for an idle person.” The pairing of laziness and Lawrence may be the result of three factors: 1) the alliterative appeal; 2) the fact that no one wants to work in the sweltering heat characteristic of mid-August; and (gulp!) 3) because of a joke in which it was said that Lawrence told the soldiers to turn him over because he was too lazy to do it himself. Whatever the reason, there is a similar development in German with the expression der faule Lenz. 
Lawrence in Legend
St. Lawrence is also tied to the legend of the Holy Grail. As a deacon, it was his responsibility to tend to the Chalice during Mass, and it was believed that the Church in Rome had in her possession the very vessel that our Lord used during the Last Supper. One fascinating piece of evidence, at least in the eyes of some, is that in the Roman Canon, the priest does not take the bread and say “On the night He was betrayed...He took this bread,” but the priest does take the chalice and say “He took this chalice” (hanc calicem). In any event, knowing that his execution was imminent, Lawrence allegedly sent the Holy Grail to his parents in Huesca, Spain for safekeeping. The chalice is now venerated as a relic in the Cathedral of Valencia.
Basilica of Saint Lawrence Outside the Walls
Lawrence in Rome
According to Prudentius, St. Lawrence’s manly acceptance of death single-handedly converted the city of Rome, and thus it is no surprise that there are six major churches in the Eternal City bearing his name. Saint-Lawrence-in-Damaso is where he conducted his diaconal duties, and Saint-Lawrence-in-Miranda is a converted temple where he was allegedly sentenced to death. San Lorenzo in Fonte is said to be where the saint was imprisoned. Its name derives from a spring that miraculously appeared in the jail after Lawrence prayed for water in order to baptize a fellow prisoner whom he had converted. San Lorenzo in Lucina contains the gridiron used to martyr him (the minor basilica’s irreverent nickname is San Lorenzo in Cucina [Lawrence in the Kitchen]); and Saint-Lawrence-Outside-the-Walls contains the body of the martyr. The final church to mention, which is built on the site where it is believed that Lawrence was martyred, was once staffed by nuns who gave out bread (panis) and ham (perna) to the needy on his feast day in imitation of the Saint’s generosity. Consequently, the street where this took place was called Panisperna, and the church San Lorenzo in Panisperna.
Lawrence and Cuisine
The nuns’ charming custom brings us to the subject of food. Understandably, there is a tradition in some locales of not eating grilled meats on St. Lawrence’s Day. In Florence, lasagna is the traditional fare, while in Spain it is gazpacho and bizcocho de San Lorenzo (a chestnut biscuit which means “twice-cooked”!). And why not a good deli sandwich with ham? Whatever the fare, it should be suitable for a patron saint of cooks but not so fancy that it favors the rich over the poor.

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