Saturday, August 02, 2008


As Molly has mentioned before the Perseid meteor shower will peak this year on August 12, 10 days from now. The legend of Perseus belongs to antiquity-and Molly hopes to deal with them in good time-, but there are also Christian legends associated with this event. The Perseids are often referred to as "the tears of St. Lawrence". How did this come about ?


St. Lawrence (c 225-258) was reputedly martyred under the Emperor Valerian in 258 CE. He was supposedly a native of Osca (present day Huesca) in Hispania. Under Pope Sixtus II he was appointed a deacon and placed charge of the Church treasury and archives in Rome. because of this he is considered the patron saint of librarians and archivists. The Emperor's agents began to round up Christians in the city, with special interest paid to those who belonged to the upper classes in hopes of the confiscation of their property. These rather mercenary motives on the part of the Imperial administration are part and parcel of one part of the legend of St. Lawrence, that Pope Sixtus, who was executed before he was, instructed him to divide the Church's treasury amongst the poor. when he was brought before Valerian and told to produce the Church's treasury he brought forth the poor and told the Emperor that "these are the treasures of the Church".
Sounds pretty admirable does it not ? But read on. This little act of theatrics would seem to be annoying enough, but Lawrence committed a much greater offense. Remember what the main purpose of this whole affair was- to get at the property of rich people who were closet Christians. Well no way was Lawrence, as the record keeper of the Church, going to betray their names. Stop and think for a minute. You can haul the poor before the authorities (one wonders if many of them were even aware of the danger they were in), but perish forbid that you should rat on the rich.
This went over like a lead balloon. According to the legend Lawrence (Lorenzo in Italian) was sentenced to death by slow roasting over an outdoor grill. From this part of the story comes his patronage of cooks and tanners. according to the story he said to Valerian who was observing the execution, "I am already roasted on one side, and, if thou wouldst have me well cooked, it's time to turn me on the other". For some inexplicable reason Lawrence never became the patron saint of snarky comments.
There is lots more to the legend, including his miracles, but little of it is verifiable. The accounts of his life, work and death were not set down for over a century after his birth, and, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on him little is known besides the bare fact of his existence, his martyrdom, place of execution and date of burial. Most of the details of the legend are actually almost certainly fanciful. To read the full story in all its medieval embellishment go to 'The Life of St. Lawrence' in Jacobus de Voragine's 'The Golden Legend'.
Before leaving the legendary, however, we should look at the legendary connection of Lawrence with the "Holy Grail". This cup that was supposed to have been used at the Last Supper had been in use for the saying of Papal masses for some time when Pope Sixtus II was executed. This two handled cup was given by Lawrence to a legionnaire from his home town of Osca who delivered it to Lawrence's parents. There was once a fresco in the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Rome depicting Lawrence giving the cup to said soldier, but it was destroyed by Allied bombardment in WW 2 in July of 1943.
In Spain the 'Santo Caliz' was placed in the new church in Huesca by Bishop Vicentius in 553. In 711 the Holy Grail was taken north in the face of the Muslim invasion of Spain by Bishop Acisclo to San Pedro de Siresa. From there it travelled to the Cathedral of Jaca, and finally in 1063 to the monastery of San Juan de la Peña where it was guarded in a cave by the Templars. In 1399 King martin V of Aragon moved the grail to the royal palace in Zaragoza. In return he donated a gold replica of the cup to the monastery. In 1424 King Alfonso V moved it to his palace in Valencia, and finally in 1437 Alfonso's brother, Don Juan of Navarre, placed the grail in the Cathedral of Valencia where it remains to this day. It has left there only twice in the subsequent centuries, once during the War of Independence (1809-1813) against Napoleon and during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) when it was hidden in private homes until the victory of the fascists. In 1982 Ope John Paul II became the first Pope in over 1700 years to celebrate Mass using the Holy Grail.
One would never gather, in the accounts of pop-mysticism current today, that an actual 'Holy Grail' has a public presence. In a more gruesome fashion there is another relic connected to the cult of this saint. The Vatican holds a reliquary that supposedly contains his burnt head, and it is present for the veneration of the faithful.
A legend grew up that on the night of Lawrence's execution the sky was brightly lit by the meteors of the Perseid Meteor Shower. True or not the shower came to be traditionally known as the 'Tears of St. Lawrence'. On August 10, the feast day of St. Lawrence explorer Jacques Cartier was encamped on the north shore of what is now known as the Gulf of St. Lawrence during his first voyage to the New World. In honour of the Saint he named the body of water after him. The St. Lawrence River was named "the great River of Hochelaga" by Cartier, but was later renamed the St. Lawrence River by Samuel de Champlain. Cartier began European contact with the local natives in a fashion that became a Canadian standard in forthcoming centuries- he kidnapped the two sons of Chief Donnacona. Something for the Saint to actually cry about perhaps.

No comments: