Palermo: Oratorio di San Lorenzo

Oratorio di San Lorenzo.

The sixteenth-century oratory of Saint Lawrence stands next to the medieval church of San Francesco d’Assisi and is closely associated with it. Starting in 1569 the building served as the meeting place for the Compagnia di San Francesco, a lay fraternity with many merchants from Genoa among its members. One of the activities of the fraternity was taking care of the funerals of the poor in this part of Palermo. The oratory did not just have a religious, but also a social function. Its dedication to Saint Lawrence is explained by the fact that the oratory was built on the spot where previously a church dedicated to this famous saint had stood.

During an earthquake in 1823 the vault of the building was heavily damaged, and as a result the ceiling frescoes from 1706-1708 were lost. These were painted by Giacinto Calandrucci (1646-1707) and were probably completed after his death by his less famous brother Domenico. Another work that can also no longer be admired in the oratory is the painting of the Nativity of Christ with Saint Franciscus and Saint Lawrence by the great painter Caravaggio (1571-1610). This work from 1609 was stolen in the night of 17 and 18 October 1969 and has been missing ever since. Unfortunately there is a fair chance that it was destroyed. According to Mafia pentito Gaspare Spatuzza, the canvas was kept in a barn after the theft by Mafia members. There pigs and rats gnawed on the painting, after which the Mafia decided to burn it. Whether this story is credible or not, in 2015 a copy of Caravaggio’s work was made which currently adorns the oratory.

Oratorio di San Lorenzo.

Floor of the oratory.

The oratory has beautiful wooden choir benches from the first half of the eighteenth century and a splendid marble floor from 1716 by Francesco Camalino and Alojsio Mira. On this floor we see an image of a gridiron. According to tradition it was on such a gridiron that Saint Lawrence was martyred in Rome in the year 258, after which he was buried in the catacombs of Campo Verano. Exhorted by an edict of the emperor Valerianus, the Roman authorities had first decapitated the bishop of Rome, Sixtus, together with six of his deacons. Four days later Lawrence, who was a deacon as well, was also executed after he had refused to tell the authorities where the riches of the Church were hidden. It is plausible that Lawrence too was beheaded by the sword, the usual punishment for Roman citizens. But tradition likes to claim that he died a horrible death on a gridiron, and the oratory of Saint Lawrence likes to honour this tradition.

Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence.

Saint Lawrence shares the riches of the Church with the poor.

Between 1699 and 1706 the oratory was decorated with beautiful stucco work by Giacomo Serpotta (1656-1732), perhaps the greatest Sicilian sculptor ever. His most beautiful decoration in the building is the big relief against the counter-façade that features the martyrdom of the saint. A virtually naked Lawrence is pulled onto the gridiron by the executioner while an assistant is poking up the fire below him. The man with the beard and covered head next to the gridiron is possibly a Roman magistrate or pagan priest who pronounces the death sentence. Above the scene of the martyrdom we see the Roman emperor on his throne watching the execution. All the way at the top putti are soaring through the sky with the martyr’s crown and palm branch.

For the back wall and side walls Serpotta also made a number of scenes featuring stories from the lives of Lawrence (left) and Franciscus (right). We for instance see how the former distributes the riches of the Church among the poor and how the latter appears before the Sultan of Egypt (an event that supposedly took place during the Fifth Crusade, but which is probably fictional). Unfortunately, while the Sultan still sits on his throne, Franciscus himself has disappeared. In the other scenes some of the figurines have also regretfully been lost, apparently the result of neglect of the oratory in the twentieth century. Fortunately this neglect is now a thing of the past, thanks to a restoration which was completed in 2003. The ten statues between the stories of Lawrence and Franciscus, five on each side, represent various virtues.

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  1. Pingback:Palermo: Oratorio del Rosario di San Domenico – – Corvinus –

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