St. Lawrence's Death on a Grill: Fact or Fiction?: An Update on the Controversy
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St. Lawrence's Death on a Grill: Fact or Fiction?
An Update on the Controversy

Lawrence (Latin laurentius, literally "laurelled") is the name of the archdeacon of the church of Rome who was martyred in Rome in the year 258 during the persecution of Christians ordered by the Emperor Valerian.1 In the century after his martyrdom, devotion to this St. Lawrence developed rapidly and far beyond Rome. Moreover, it has continued to grow and spread even up to modern times, finding expression in art, music, literature, geographical exploration, and social life. For example, in the year 1145 the cathedral at Lund, Sweden, was consecrated with Lawrence as its patron. As for the literary influence of the martyrdom of Lawrence, one should note how Lawrence's steadfast courage in the face of death is celebrated in the fourth canto of Dante's Paradiso (completed by 1320). And Lawrence's burning on a grill is the subject of a conversation in one of the tales, the tenth story on the sixth day, in Boccaccio's collection of short stories called the Decameron (written c. 1348).

Too numerous to mention are the representations of Lawrence in the graphic arts. But outstanding among them are the stained glass windows in the cathedral of Bourges, France, which were completed in the year 1230 and illustrate Lawrence's life as well as his death. [End Page 89] We should also note the paintings by Fra Angelico and the Venetian painter Titian. More precisely, between 1447 and 1449, Fra Angelico, at the request of Pope Nicholas V, painted for a chapel in the apostolic palace at the Vatican a series of frescoes illustrating the life and death of Lawrence. In the year 1558, Titian was commissioned by Venetian nobleman Lorenzo Massolo to paint a large (14½ feet by 10½ feet) altar backdrop of the martyrdom of St. Lawrence for his family chapel in the church of the Crociferi at Venice.2 In music, the great composer of vocal polyphony, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525–1594), wrote liturgical music for Lawrence's feast day (the Missa Beatus Laurentius and solemn vespers for both the vigil and feast day).

As for geographical references, in the year 1534, the French explorer Jacques Cartier gave the name of St. Lawrence to the largest estuary on the North American continent (the Gulf of St. Lawrence) and to the river that flows into it. A few years later, when King Philip II of Spain decided to build a royal retreat in the mountains twenty-eight miles northwest of Madrid near the town of Escorial, he named his retreat San Lorenzo de Escorial so as to honor the fact that the victory of the Spanish army over the forces of Henry II of France at Picardy in the year 1557 occurred on the feast of Saint Lawrence, August 10. In 1737, San Lorenzo was the name given to a municipality on the island of Puerto Rico, because according to legend the martyr saint had appeared to several inhabitants of that place. In addition, St. Lawrence is the name of one of the oldest towns on the coast of Queensland, Australia. In 1909, the cathedral for the diocese of Charlotte, North Carolina, was consecrated with St. Lawrence as its patron. In 1993, Pope John Paul II designated that cathedral in North Carolina a minor basilica, which because of its architectural splendor has been placed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Last but not least, San Lorenzo is the name of a professional soccer team in Buenos Aires of which Pope Francis has been a fan since his youth.

However, in modern times, certain things about Lawrence's martyrdom have been disputed; they have been both seriously challenged [End Page 90] and vigorously defended. In this article, I will look first at the earliest traditions concerning Lawrence's martyrdom, and then I will consider both the modern challenges raised against those ancient accounts as well as one valiant modern defense of the ancient legend.

As for Lawrence's life before his martyrdom, there is general agreement among scholars: Lawrence appears to have been born of Christian...


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