On the orders of the pope, Saint Lawrence, a deacon of the early Christian Church, distributed church property to the poor in Rome. When the Roman authorities discovered what he was doing, they ordered him to hand over the treasures to the city. He refused, and when pressed to give up his Christian faith or face execution, he chose death. He was killed in AD 258.
Here the saint is being stripped of his clothes in preparation for being roasted alive; to the right, two men stoke a fire beneath a gridiron. The figure in the red and gold robes is the Roman Emperor Decius. A Roman priest in a dark hooded cloak stands between emperor and saint, and points to a statue of Hercules, a mythological hero of antiquity. Lawrence’s expression suggests he is in a state of spiritual ecstasy: he looks towards an angel who points to heaven, the inspiration of his strength.
This grand painting on a small scale uses the smoothness of its copper surface to paint intricate details on a minute scale. Saint Lawrence, a deacon of the early Christian church, is shown being stripped of his clothes in preparation for his execution – his outer garment lies crumpled in the bottom left corner. According to the Golden Legend, Lawrence distributed church property to the poor on the orders of the pope. When the Roman authorities discovered what he was doing, they ordered him to hand over the treasures – that is, precious objects and money – to the city. Lawrence refused, and when pressed to give up his Christian faith or face execution, he chose death. He was killed in AD 258.
The figure in the red and gold robes is the Roman Emperor Decius. His patterned turban gives him the appearance of a figure from the Eastern Mediterranean. It might be a reference to images of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, who condemned Christ to death in Jerusalem: Pilate is portrayed in similar dress in a woodcut (a type of print) showing the Flagellation of Christ by Albrecht Dürer. Between the emperor and the saint, a Roman priest in a dark hooded cloak points to a statue of Hercules, son of the god Jupiter. The mythological hero stands in the same proud pose as Decius, a reference to the pagan gods that Lawrence refused to worship.
The saint’s punishment for his refusal was to be roasted alive. In the background to the right, two men stoke a fire beneath a gridiron, the instrument of Lawrence’s martyrdom. A mounted Roman soldier oversees their labour; he holds a banner inscribed with the initials SPQR, which stand for senatus populusque romanus (‘the senate and people of Rome’). A crowd has arrived from the city to watch. In spite of the gruesome torture that awaits him, Lawrence does not struggle – he has opened his arms to assist his captors as they undress him. His eyes are cast upwards and his expression suggests he is in a state of spiritual ecstasy: he looks towards an angel who points to heaven, the inspiration of his strength.
Adam Elsheimer settled in Rome in the spring of 1600 and the city’s classical architecture provided inspiration for the backdrop to the scene. He has included minute decorative details, such as the frieze of the temple-like building behind Hercules, but the pagan structures are shown in decay: a vine encircles one of the columns, and the roots of small shrubs have fractured the pediment. In the dark sky above, three white birds fly towards the sunlit clouds; in the earth around the statue’s pediment is a cluster of thistles and wild grasses. As was usual in Elsheimer’s repertoire, he has included a huge amount of detail within a very small space.
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