Fra Angelico: Saint Lawrence before Valerianus
August 10th is the Feast Day of St. Lawrence the Librarian., also known as St. Lawrence the Martyr. Lawrence was one of seven deacons of Rome during the reign of Bishop Sixtus II. As were Sixtus and the other deacons, Lawrence was put to death in 258, during Emperor Valerian's persecution of the Christian church.
There can be little doubt that Lawrence was a real person or that he was martyred. His existence and death are recorded in the Deposito Martyrum, which was compiled in 354 That he was martyred was generally accepted by Church Fathers. What cannot be certain are the particulars of Lawrence's martyrdom.
That Lawrence was a popular and powerful figure during the Middle Ages is attested to by the multitude of churches dedicated to him. In Rome alone there are five.
Lawrence was a librarian. Tradition tells us he also took care of the working records of the Church. Apparently he also was thought to be a steward over the property and treasure of the Church. According to the hagiographies, it was because of this that he was martyred.
The middle years of the third century were difficult times for Christians living in the Roman Empire. Rome itself was subjected to repeated barbarian attacks and it was these attacks that led to the end of uneasy truces between Roman Christians and pagans.
Just six years later, the barbarians again were at the gates of Rome. And Emperor Valerian
And here is where the accounts of historians and hagiographers begin to differ. One hagiography tells us that Lawrence stood weeping as Roman soldiers led Sixtus II out to die, saddened because he could not die with his master.
Don't you just have to wonder how the folks who create the biographies of Catholic saints are able to come up with precise quotations, not only of the saint himself but others who interacted with him? I find it difficult to believe that anyone was standing by writing in a steno tablet as armed men were dragging the reigning bishop off to be executed as one of his aids stood there sobbing. I have already mentioned that the first account of Lawrence's martyrdom dates to nearly a full century after the event. Do you reckon Catholic hagiographers "fill in the blanks" to make their stories more convincing in much the same way as Catholic theologians do when supplying vital information God "forgot" to include in the Scriptures?
One church historian, in describing some of the locations where the ancient Christian church in Rome kept its archives, offers what appears to be a somewhat objective account of the events leading up to Lawrence's martyrdom.
As might be anticipated, the accounts of Catholic hagiographers are much more exciting and inspirational. The neat thing about them is that, though written centuries after the fact, they almost always seem to include direct quotations from both Lawrence and his bishop. They also a bit bloodier. As quoted above, historian Will Durant tells us that Sixtus II and four of his seven deacons were executed. Clearly that is insufficiently impressive. In the hagiographies, all the deacons died, with Lawrence being the last one to go. Lawrence's death was something Cecile B. DeMille would have included in an epic film.
One hagiology records that
Prudentius tells us that Lawrence was very upset that he was left behind when his bishop and the other deacons were taken away. He followed after them, weeping and demanding to know why he was not also to be killed. Sixtus is claimed to have consoled his deacon by telling him that he would also die in just a few days.
It may be that Lawrence was spared because of his position as librarian and guardian of the Church's records and treasure. Another hagiology informs:
I just love the way these wonderful stories are filled with clever sayings and bold quotations. The best is yet to come, as we read the fantasy of Lawrence's bravery under torture.
Actually, it is more likely that Lawrence the Librarian was beheaded, this being the favored method of execution in Rome at the time.
Lawrence is the patron saint of cooks (of course), deacons, schoolboys, students, armorers, brewers, confectioners, cutlers, glaziers and launderers. Librarians and archivists usually celebrated his feast day (August 10) with cold cuts. Every year, the Vatican blows the dust off the reliquary holding his head and places it on display in order that Catholic faithful might gaze upon it and do whatever it is one does when reverencing a gruesome mummified body part.
Pray to the spirit of a dead man while kneeling before a golden case holding his dessicated head? Not me. I believe I shall continue to tender my prayers directly to God Almighty. In so doing, I won't have to worry about being troubled by nightmares.
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