Even though I have been doing this for a long time, and have a constant curiosity related to cultural issues associated with gastronomy, I was unaware that chefs also have their patron, the patron saint that is celebrated on the 10th of August. It pays homage to Saint Lawrence. According to some authors St. Lawrence is also considered the protector of the grill chefs, the pastry makers, the innkeepers, the librarians, the firemen, the glass professionals, and of the poor. A very wide range of professions, but perhaps the cooks and the poor were the first to claim protection and the first to celebrate the day. Even though, as an agnostic, I do not seem to take an interest in Church matters, I am however forced to understand its organization because all religions influence and determine some eating rules and bans on food. Therefore, it seems to me a little bold to write about a Saint or the reasons that led some professions to choose him as a protector.

St. Lawrence was born in the third Century in Huesca and soon left for Rome where he became a Deacon for Pope Sixtus II. At that time the position of deacon was an extremely important position, comparable today to what the Curia Cardinals are in the Vatican. The Pope had seven deacons that helped him administrate the Church. The most important deacon, also known as Archdeacon, managed all the Church goods. So, St. Lawrence was the Archdeacon, who under normal circumstances would succeed the Pope. Amongst the various responsibilities was to receive the alms, keep the archives, supervise the construction of cemeteries, and the majority of “the Roman clergy, the faith confessors, the widows, the orphans and the poor, depended on him”. Due to all his responsibilities he was already considered the future Pope. It is said that the biggest test to which he was subjected was during the death of pope Sixtus II, who was assassinated with four of his deacons. According to legend, St. Lawrence asked the Pope, in agony, where he was going without his son, his Deacon. The Pope answered that he should not feel that he was abandoning him, and that bigger combats awaited him and that after three days they would be reunited.

As a matter of fact, three days after the Pope´s martyrdom, St. Lawrence is called before the prefect of Rome, Cornelious Saecularis, who was under the Valerian Emperor. The Prefect demands that he hand over all the money and Church books of accounts. St. Lawrence asks to return the following day and promises to hand over all the wealth of the Church. Meanwhile, he distributed all the riches amongst his followers, and the following day he informs the prefect that he wants to present to him all the treasures. He boldly presents him a crowd of worshippers, the poor, the sick and those protected by the Church and says: “These are the real treasures of the Church.”

St. Lawrence decided to distribute the riches in an act of total faith and charity towards the needy. The prefect did not appreciate this at all and answered him: “You will pay for this fraud with your life. You will burn to death, on top of a grill.”

Thus Pope Sixtus II ´s prediction came true. St. Lawrence is burned on a grill and as he feels his flesh burning, he turns to his executor and says: “This side is already done, turn me over and have a bite.” And this is how, through martyrdom, he went to join his Pope. This took place in 258.

This brief description of the last days of St. Lawrence later determined the choice of some professions in taking him as their patron protector, namely those working in the cooking sector.

The image of St. Lawrence is always depicted with a grill, the symbol of his martyrdom. It is curious to find images of St. Lawrence as a child, even so his images are always with the grill.

Various painters depicted St. Lawrence almost always showing the last moments of his life. Giovanni Lanfranco (1635) is the most significant painting and he painted the act of tying St. Lawrence to the grill. On the other hand, Bernardo Strozzi (1638), following the trend at the time, shows St. Lawrence distributing treasure objects amongst the poor. Francisco de Zurbarán (1636) in a more bold or ostentatious large painting, hanging in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, depicts St. Lawrence richly dressed, but holding a grill in his left hand. The grill is, in fact, the main iconic attribute o St. Lawrence.

The diffusion of his cult seems to have started in Aragón, his birth place, and then spread to Italy and as from the tenth Century to Germany and all of Europe. In Brazil, the Italian communities are very devoted to him and he is patron of the Escola de Gastronomia, Universidade de Caxias do Sul. Particularly in Rome, he is venerated on the same level as the first Apostles. According to the old liturgy of Rome, the St. Lawrence festivities are the most important after St. Peter and St. Paul.

In Portugal, St. Lawrence is venerated in many places. Many parishes have his name, and curiously enough there is a grill in the iconography. This is the case in São Lourenço in Portalegre, Sande – S. Lourenço in Guimarães or S. Lourenço de Ribapinhão, amongst many other places.

Some Portuguese museums have magnificent sculptures representing St. Lawrence, namely the Alberto Sampaio Museum, The National Museum Machado de Castro and the National Museum of Ancient Art.

St. Lawrence is also a popular saint. On the 10th of August, the dedicated date, there is a proverb that says “On St. Lawrence go to the vine and fill up your scarf” This means that the grapes are ripe and ready to be eaten and that soon the harvests will follow. I have never seen the professional groups protected by this saint, celebrate or have any associated festivity. Today even the non believers participate actively in the popular festivities that first began with the Church. Even the Church has become accustomed to the pagan activities and the interactivity between the Sacred and the profane.

Do we need a better example than the festivities of Saint Anthony and Saint John?

Let us learn to understand traditions and their origins.

©Virgilio Gomes

Photos provided by National Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon