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The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence

November 22, 2010

Brock finishes his book with one of Bronzino’s last paintings, The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence.  And it is this painting, although not technically his best, that seals Bronzino’s place in the pantheon of great Renaissance figures, because of the statement – or statements – it makes.

Bronzino’s career went into eclipse with the rise of the Counter-Reformation and the dictates of the Council of Trent, perhaps most famous now for “amending” the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in 1564 by painting bits of cloth over the naughty parts.  According to Brock, Bronzino attempted several works in the new “modest” style, but then returned to form for the St. Lawrence – not because he couldn’t adapt, but because, in the end, he decided to go out with a bang, reinforcing and celebrating Mannerism and Michelangelo, the nude and the extravagant.  I believe he poured everything into this painting, and I’m surprised Brock didn’t take the extra step to notice one more thing. 


First, the subject matter.  St. Lawrence, according to legend anyway, was martyred under the persecutions of the Emperor Valerian.  He was burnt alive on a gridiron, and cried out, “This side’s done, turn me over and have a bite.”

Second, one of the many references to Michelangelo in the painting is to the Sistine Chapel – in a painting done after the Council of Trent painted over it.  Brock notes the reference to God and Adam in the poses of Lawrence and the Emperor:


But, I believe mistakenly, although noting the distance between the figures in the St. Lawrence, he says that “it seems unlikely that the borrowing is meant to be significant.”

I believe the picture is a subtle yet powerful criticism of the church’s new doctrines – as discreet as could possibly be done without being convicted of heresy.  In the Chapel, God is above Adam, but only just, and Adam’s hand is above God’s.  The “spark of life” moves between them.  In the St. Lawrence, the Emperor is situated “above God.”  In fact (I don’t have the software to do it, but here’s a crappy shot), if you scale the figures of Lawrence and Adam as closely as possible, Bronzino has placed the Emperor’s foot on God himself.


Michelangelo, Adam, Man and Art have all been consigned to the griddle by those who dare set themselves up over God.  Bronzino jeers the Council and all those who deny God’s power in art by shouting to the skies as St. Lawrence did, “Turn me over and have a bite!”

The hands also show how the the relationship between God and Man have been corrupted by the Emperors of the church.  God points with a single finger, and Adam reaches with all his might to catch the spark:


Whereas the Emperor’s single finger gives nothing, only damns and condemns, while Adam’s hand is snatched back as if burned, asking, “Why?”


Or even, if the gesture existed then, an invitation…come and get me, copper! More than any invention in any Dan Brown novel, here is a secret message from the Renaissance – God is Art is God, and woe betide those who would have it any other way.

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