Yesterday was the feast of the Roman deacon St. Lawrence, who was martyred in the mid-200’s A.D. There’s no question that Lawrence really existed–his death is chronicled in the earliest extant Christian documents, and his burial place is still known. But in the Middle Ages, hagiographers began romantically embellishing his life story, and so it can sometimes be unclear which elements are fantasy and which are historical fact.
This 17th-century painting by Bernardo Strozzi, “The Charity of St. Lawrence,” hangs in one of Rome’s most important art galleries. Its coloring and brilliant light effects make it an artistic treasure; but how many visitors actually understand what it depicts?
When Pope Sixtus II was arrested by the Roman government, he left his deacon Lawrence in charge of the Church’s material goods and the care of the Christian poor. This fact became known to the Emperor, who summoned Lawrence and demanded that he hand over the treasures of the Church.
Lawrence asked for three days to do this–and immediately set to work, giving all the valuables which the Church possessed to the poor. And when he returned to the Emperor, he brought with him a crowd of elderly widows, orphans, handicapped persons, and other so-called “misfits,” and declared, “Here are the Church’s treasures!”
Needless to say, the Emperor was not amused. He ordered Lawrence to be tortured and killed–and while the deacon Lawrence lost his life, he had nonetheless managed to keep the material property of the Church out of pagan imperial hands.
That, at least, is how the story goes. It’s pretty obvious that much of it was invented several centuries after Lawrence’s martyrdom, and so it shouldn’t be taken too seriously. But the artist Strozzi still found it a suitable topic for a painting, about a thousand years after that.
If you visit Rome’s museums on your own, without a guide, you may very well find yourself scratching your head like the rest, wondering what paintings such as this one are all about. But if you tour Rome with us… no head-scratching is necessary. You’ll know exactly what it is that you’re looking at!