This week fashion house Yves Saint Laurent announced the arrival of their latest product: Saint Laurent condoms. Packaged in shiny gold, leopard print, and black-white-racing-check packaging, each luxury prophylactic comes “adorned with the Saint Laurent” name and retails for $2.20 a piece. While most people (and certainly the product development team) will associate the branding with the luxury fashion company, one cannot help but wonder what the company’s namesake, St. Lawrence, would think of all of this. Even though Lawrence was roasted alive in the third century, there’s no information on the website about whether or not the condoms are flammable.
Saint Laurent fashion was founded in 1961 by the French Designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé. Clearly, Yves intended to name the company after himself, not the Catholic, Eastern orthodox, and Anglican saint. But the fact of the matter is that it is Lawrence’s name that adorns the condoms. To members of the Roman Catholic church, which prohibits the use of contraception, this might all seem to be in poor taste. But once you look into it perhaps Lawrence wasn’t such a bad choice after all.
According to tradition St. Lawrence was one of seven deacons working in Rome in the middle of the third century. He was rumored to be from northeast Spain and lived there until he ran into the future Pope Sixtus II and followed him to Rome. When Sixtus became Pope in 257 A.D. he ordained Lawrence as a deacon and appointed him as one of the seven “archdeacons” of the church.
Things were quiet for the first year, but in 258 the Emperor Valerian was having difficulties controlling the eastern front. In 253 the Persians had captured and sacked the city of Antioch and Valerian traveled east to combat the military threat. Like many Roman emperors before him, Valerian thought that tighter religious and social unity would please the gods and thus ensure success on the battlefield. In 257 he wrote to the Senate demanding that Christian leaders participate in pagan religious rituals and that Christians stop meeting in cemeteries en masse. The following year, when military success continued to elude him, he dispatched a second much stronger letter commanding that church leaders—including Lawrence—be executed.
In addition, Valerian demand that the valuables and possessions of Christians be confiscated. Ambrose of Milan says that the Roman prefect asked Lawrence to hand over all of the church’s riches. Lawrence asked for three days to gather up the many treasures amassed by Roman Christians. He then rounded up the poor of the city (to whom he has distributed the church’s money as alms) and told the prefect, “Behold in these poor persons the treasures which I promised to show you; to which I will add pearls and precious stones, those widows and consecrated virgins, which are the Church's crown.”
The prefect was not amused. According to legend, he responded by devising an especially horrible death for Lawrence: he had a large gridiron heated on top of hot coals (a BBQ, to you and I) and had Lawrence placed on top of it. After some time being roasted, Lawrence cheerfully told the prefect “Turn me over, I’m done on this side.” A smartass to the end, Lawrence is one of a host of ancient martyrs who do not seem to feel pain despite experiencing torture. His famous last words are part of a history of pre-mortem banter that includes everyone from Socrates to the many (near-)death parting words of James Bond. We think more highly of heroes that are cavalier enough to make snappy retorts to the bitter end.
It’s for this reason that Lawrence is the patron saint of cooks, chefs, and comedians. When you see him in Christian artwork—for example, in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine chapel—he’s lugging around a gridiron.
Of course, there are many scholars who think that this story is nothing more than an entertaining legend. Writing at the beginning of the 20th century, the historian Patrick Healy wrote that Lawrence’s slow and (one imagines) quite pungent cannibalistic death doesn’t make sense in the context of Valerian’s orders. The language of Valerian’s letter suggests that church leaders were supposed to have been decapitated. Healey argues that the original account of Lawrence’s death was supposed to read “passus est” (he suffered) but that the “p” was missed out transforming the first word into “assus” or “grilled.” Ancient commentators, Healey imagines, couldn’t help but seize upon the detail and expand it into its own story.
Lawrence’s showy persona caught on in the tradition. One of the most famous miracles attributed to the saint involves a carpenter who instead of “measuring twice and cutting once” ended up measuring once and asking a saint for assistance. The beam that he needed to construct a church in Lawrence’s honor turned out to be too short for the job. When he asked Lawrence for help the beam suddenly grew much longer, Pinocchio-style. In fact, the beam was longer than the carpenter needed and the excess wood distributed to others as relics. After that the beam apparently had the power to heal toothache.
Lawrence is one of the most popular and widely revered saints in Christianity. After St. Peter and St. Paul Lawrence is considered to be the third patron of the city of Rome. San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, the church built over his tomb, contains a stone that tradition maintains Lawrence laid on after his death. This particular church houses a number of early Christian “big guns” including Justin Martyr, one of the most influential theologians of the second century; but it’s Lawrence who gets top billing. Another church, San Lorenzo in Lucina, contains a shrine that features the legendary gridiron on which he allegedly roasted. These are just two of the nine significant Roman churches associated with Lawrence. Another, the Church of St. Lawrence in Palatio ad Sancta Sanctorum, houses a set of 28 white marble steps known as the “Holy Stairs.” Legend holds that these were the steps that Jesus climbed on his way to his trial before Pilate. You are only permitted to climb the stairs on your knees but you do receive a reduction of your time in purgatory for doing so.
Roasted flesh doesn’t have a great deal to do with contraception, but the artists who set out to draw and sculpt Lawrence’s martyrdom decided to make the scene a great deal sexier than it sounds. Most artists show Lawrence reclining on the gridiron almost as if was a bed or couch. Bronzino’s version in Milan has bystanders leering at him; Michelangelo has him scantily clad, and Bernini’s sculpture shows a barely-concealed Lawrence with his head tossed back in what could be pleasure. Beyond the fact that the jokester Lawrence might get a kick out of the inappropriateness of his name on a condom, maybe he does know something about burning with passion.