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   St. Lawrence: Deacon of Rome, martyr

A mysterious fresco numbered among the 31 pieces in the Vatican Museums Exhibition scheduled in Lubbock in 2002 is titled only "St. Deacon."

The piece is one of those removed from the Church of St. Agnese. Searching through historical documents for St. Deacon yielded dozens of possibilities -- hundreds if one counts all the deacons named in the early history of the Roman Catholic Church.

But the Rev. Malcolm Neyland, director of the Vatican Exhibit 2002 Foundation, said that the image titled St. Deacon is likely is St. Lawrence, a deacon of the early church who died in Rome on August, 10, 258.

Several of the frescoes included in the exhibit are titled with vague inscriptions like "Six Saints," and "Two Saints," and "Marriage of the Virgin." But no one knows for sure whose images are depicted in those frescoes, Neyland said.

"There's a lot of mystery to this exhibit, which is why it's interesting," he said. "Biblical scholars, theologians, historians, these people haven't had the opportunity to study the frescoes.

"It may be 50 to 75 years before the culmination of studies tell us exactly who these (unknown) saints are."

The Marriage of the Virgin is probably a depiction of Jesus' mother Mary, although it could be St. Agnes, he said.

But the fresco of St. Deacon, if it does depict St. Lawrence, is of a well-known personage in the Catholic/Christian hierarchy.

St. Lawrence is one of the four "main patron saints" of Rome, Neyland said. Lawrence was one of the victims of the persecutions of the Emperor Valerian during a time when Roman authority routinely killed Christians.

St. Lawrence was a contemporary of Pope Sixtus II and many other members of the Roman clergy.

At the beginning of the month of August in 258, the emperor issued an edict commanding that all bishops, priests and deacons should immediately be put to death.

The imperial command was carried out in Rome. On 6 August, Pope Sixtus II was apprehended in one of the catacombs and executed.

Four days later, on the 10th of August, Lawrence, the last of the seven deacons of Rome, also suffered a martyr's death.

The anniversary of St. Lawrence falls on 10 Aug. A.D. 354, according to the Almanac of Philocalus.

The almanac also mentions the street where Lawrence's grave is located, on the Via Tiburtina.

Since the fourth century St. Lawrence has been one of the most honored martyrs of the Roman Church, Neyland said.

"Lawrence was probably beheaded," he said. "Others say he was roasted to death on a gridiron, and art has portrayed him on a gridiron."

The story goes that Lawrence, as one of the protectors and defenders of the poor and outcasts of Rome, was told by the Roman prefect to bring him the treasures of the church, Neyland said.

"He gathered the lame, the sick, the poor, the widows and orphans, and is quoted as saying, 'These are the riches of the church,'

The enraged prefect ordered Lawrence tortured on the gridiron for impertinence, Neyland said.

"While being roasted, he asked his torturers to turn him over," he added. "He said, 'I'm done on this side.' "

But accounts of the martyrdom of St. Lawrence on a red-hot gridiron were composed, probably, early in the sixth century, and the narratives were connected in a romantic and legendary fashion, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume IX.

The details concerning the martyrdom of St. Lawrence cannot claim any credibility, the encyclopedia states.

However, despite criticism of the later accounts of his martyrdom, there is no question that St. Lawrence was a real historical personage, nor any doubt as to his martyrdom, or of the place of its occurrence and the date of his burial.

Constantine the Great was the first to erect a little oratory over his burial-place, which was enlarged by Pope Pelagius II (579-90), according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.

Pope Sixtus III (432-40) built a large basilica with the apse leaning against the older church, on the summit of the hill where Lawrence was buried.

In the 13th century, Honorius III made the two buildings into one and the basilica of San Lorenzo remains to this day.

Pope Damasus (A.D. 366-84) also built a basilica in Rome that he dedicated to St. Lawrence, now known as San Lorenzo in Damaso.

"The saints were those who lived exemplary lifestyles, and who, in their martyrdom, did not deny Christ," Neyland said. "And naming a church after a saint is a custom that derives ultimately from the early churches being built over the martyrs' graves, or at the place where the martyr was thought to have been killed."

The feast day of St. Lawrence is kept on 10 August.

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