Master of the St. Mary Polyptych (attrib.)
The Palazzo Bellomo St. Lawrence Altarpiece: Detail, the last rites of Pope Saint Sixtus II
St. Lawrence kneels and kisses Sixtus's hand. The grief portrayed on his face registers the anguish in his words when Sixtus was arrested ("Whither goest thou, father, without a minister? What thing is in me that hath displeased thy fatherhood, or what thing hast thou seen in me?") and when he went to his death ("Forsake me not, holy father").
Stephen is flanked by two deacons or priests holding candles. A smaller figure at the foot of the bed, perhaps an acolyte or subdeacon, holds a long candle.. Behind him stand three bishops with their mitres, croziers, and copes. This is not really the scene one would expect from reading the Golden Legend, which like all lives of St. Lawrence has the Pope beheaded three days before Lawrence's own martyrdom. Instead of showing the beheading the artist chooses to present the aftermath as told in a passage from an account of Sixtus's martyrdom:
They took Sixtus…to the Hill of Mars before the temple, and there he was beheaded with two deacons, and they left the bodies lying in the street. At night the majority of Christians came with the clergy and presbyters and deacons, and they collected the bodies of the saints and buried blessed Sixtus, bishop and martyr, in a crypt in the Cemetery of Callixtus in the same street.
Acta Sanctorum, August vol. 2, 141 – my translation
The liturgical nature of the event depicted in the image is emphasized by the candles held by the priest and acolytes, the book from which one of the bishops is reading, and the bell in the right hand of the acolyte who stands beside that bishop and looks over to see what is in the book.
The scene has a distinct resemblance to Dormition images. For example, St. Peter brings a book to Mary's bier in this Dormition icon and in this painting, which also shows John ringing a bell. In this enamel two of the apostles at the bier hold candles while another reads from an open book. Lawrence's placement midway along the bier corresponds to a number of other Dormitions in which St. John stands or kneels at just the same midpoint.
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Photographed at the Palazzo Bellomo by Claire Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.