Saint Laurence Deacon and Martyr

Very little historical facts are known of Laurence but his existence and martyrdom in the year 258 are recorded in the very ancient Depositio Martyrum. Early legends say Laurence, born about 225, was from Huesca in Tarragon, Spain, and that he received religious instruction from Archdeacon Sixtus in Rome. When Sixtus became Bishop of Rome and Pope in 257, Laurence was ordained a deacon and placed in charge of administering church goods and care of the poor. As an archivist and treasurer he was later made patron of librarians.

Pope Sixtus II was martyred a few days before Laurence during the persecution of the Emperor Valerian. As a deacon, Laurence was known for his generosity and care for the poor. However, other details, including the famous roasting on the gridiron, are not deemed historical, especially as the instrument of capital punishment at the time was the sword. The gridiron story is believed to have been derived from a Phrygian source through the Acts of Vincent of Saragossa. Laurence’s own Acts, with vivid dialogue and imaginary details, powerfully contributed to the cult of Rome’s most famous post-apostolic martyr; as did the writings of Prudentius, Ambrose and Augustine.

In Rome, five ancient basilicas are dedicated to him, including one built over his tomb and known as St Laurence-outside-the-walls. His name is listed in the First Eucharistic Prayer and, wherever the Roman Rite was used, the cult of Laurence is to be found.

Pope Vitalian sent relics of Laurence to King Oswiu of Northumbria in England in the 7th century. Among places in England dedicated to Laurence are the infirmary chapel at Wearmouth (8th century) and the Anglo-Saxon church at Bradford-on-Avon. Before the Reformation, English dedications numbered 228. There was also a strong cult of Laurence in Spain, which claimed him as a native, and the Escorial in Madrid is dedicated to him. In the Ravenna mosaics (mausoleum of Galla Placidia) Laurence is shown carrying a long cross on his shoulder and a gospel book in his hand as he walks towards the fire and the gridiron.

The gridiron is his most common emblem but sometimes also a purse of money to recall his almsgiving. On occasion, he is paired with Stephen, also a deacon. The most complete cycle of his life was painted by Fra Angelico for the chapel of Nicholas V in the Vatican, and there are stained-glass windows of his life in the cathedrals of Bourges and Poitiers in France.

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