Jacopo Palma il Giovane, St. Lawrence Presents the Poor to the Emperor Decius

1581-82
Church of San Giacomo dall'Orio, Venice

I am giving this painting a title different from the label in the church, Distribuzione delle ricchezze sacre ai poveri. No distribution is occurring in the scene, the setting is clearly a palace, and the seated man in a purple tunic has to be a Roman authority figure. This answers perfectly to the statement in the Golden Legend that St. Lawrence presented the poor to whom he had previously distributed the Church's treasure "before Decius in the Sallustian palace" (Ryan II, 65).

In a tactic common in medieval and later religious painting, Palma puts the pagan figures in antique garb while contemporary dress is used for Lawrence, the poor, and the two figures in the right foreground. The illusional light in the painting comes from a source on the left and forward of the scene, so that the Roman soldiers and much of the figure of Decius are in shadow while Lawrence and the poor are in full light. Furthermore, the painting is positioned in the church so that the actual sunlight falling on the canvas comes from the same position as the illusional. The light and shadow, real and illusional, combine with the clothing choices to make a powerful comment on the light of grace that falls even today on God's poor and on his ministers.

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Photographed at the site by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.