TIZIANO Vecellio
(b. ca. 1488, Pieve di Cadore, d. 1576, Venezia)

The Martyrdom of St Lawrence

1557-59
Oil on canvas, 493 x 277 cm
Gesuiti, Venice

The Martyrdom of St Lawrence was painted for the now demolished church of the Crociferi in Venice. Titian in his later years seemed preoccupied with the fate of those who defied authority, and the present work is about a desperate attempt - in this case by the forces of paganism - to suppress dissent in secret and at night away from the public gaze. The sweep of the figures from upper right to lower left reinforces the curve of the trident thrust into St Lawrence's ribs and the martyr's face is brutalized by pain even as he recognizes his salvation, a ray of light punched through the cloud cover.

The painting was probably inspired by the Passion of St Lawrence by the early Christian writer Prudentius, in which the saint's martyrdom symbolized the transition from paganism to Christianity.

Titian seized the opportunity to pay tribute to Philip of Spain, who on August 10, the Feast of St Lawrence, in 1557, had defeated the French army at the battle of Saint Quentin. The two soldiers on the right are wearing Spanish armour, and their red standard bears the black eagle of the Habsburgs.