The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence (1628-32) by Massimo Stanzione (ca. 1586 – ca. 1656) is paired with the third movement of the Violin Concerto in G Minor, RV 315 (1723), (aka the “Summer” Concerto from the Four Seasons), by Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741).
This art-music pairing and commentary are by Carson Weingart.
The following audio commentary includes a discussion comparing Stanzione’s painting with Vivaldi’s music.
For a complete performance of the third movement of Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in G Minor, RV 315 (“Summer” Concerto) select the following recording:
Performed by John Harrison with the Wichita State University Chamber Players. The recording is available at Free Music Archive.
Their burning stares gaze down at Saint Lawrence, as the fiery flames roast him from beneath. This continuous struggle to rise up in the midst of downward oppression dominates both The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence by Massimo Stanzione and the third movement of Antonio Vivaldi’s second concerto, “Summer,” from The Four Seasons. As the saint struggles against his executioners, the violin soloist in the concerto competes against the orchestra. The steadfast solidarity of the orchestra parts mirrors that of the executioners and those overseeing the punishment, but could there be more to the story? When the violin plays alone, we can imagine the saint’s agony, as he writhes in pain. The music also mirrors the hope that the arrival of the angel heralds. But, then, the music takes a harmonic turn that involves members of the orchestra changing sides and joining with the soloist. As we reflect on this change of heart, we wonder if the executioners in the painting show similar compassion.
Struggling Against Oppression in Music and Art
The theme of a subject struggling against downward oppression dominates both The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence by Massimo Stanzione, and the third movement of the “Summer” concerto from Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Composed in 1723, during the Baroque era of music, The Four Seasons is a set of four solo violin concerti, based on anonymous poems describing the seasons. The music highlights the struggle of the soloist against the orchestra, while the poem that accompanies the third movement of the “Summer” concerto describes a great thunderstorm, with hailstones beating down upon the proudly standing cornstalks. The struggle of the cornstalks to stay upright, typified by the violin soloist, could be interpreted as a metaphor for Saint Lawrence’s struggle against his executioners, who hold him down to the gridiron. Supervising the execution, the Roman Prefect Valerian, dressed in a red hat and robe and standing near the right edge of the canvas, looks down with similar scorn.
Lawrence of Rome is the patron saint of the poor and was executed under the Roman Emperor Decius for distributing the church’s wealth and material goods to the less fortunate. The artist, Massimo Stanzione dresses the lower class executioners in seventeenth-century clothing, rather than ancient Roman attire (Willette 4). How interesting that Lawrence is shown being put to death by the very people for whom he was named the patron saint. Since the painting would have been displayed as an altarpiece in a church, it would have served as a Counter-Reformation reminder of the significance of Roman Catholic saints as intermediaries for the faithful.
The third movement of the concerto could be interpreted as plunging the viewer into the action unfolding on the canvas. Rapid, razor-sharp notes at a brisk tempo draw our attention not only to the turmoil erupting in the scene, but also to the sharp outlines of St. Lawrence’s muscles, particularly on his stomach and in his arms. Veins pulsing, and muscles clenched, we can almost sense the Saint’s pain as he is exposed to the raging flames below him and the hot metal of the gridiron. The opening section, played by the orchestra, contains a series of repeated notes, with the first note of each group becoming progressively lower. The compression effect of this opening diagonal downward motion of the orchestra seems to parallel the actions of the executioners in the painting. Not only do the men surrounding Lawrence hold him down, they look down at him diagonally. Compared to alternative depictions of the same scene by other artists, this rendition places much greater emphasis on the emotional reaction of the guards, rather than the action itself.
In the opening of the concerto, the orchestra members play the same notes and the same rhythms at the same time, demonstrating a firm determination that mirrors that of Lawrence’s executioners and those observing his punishment. But, a brief pause interrupts two similar statements of the opening idea, just as Saint Lawrence separates the two sides of his executioners in the painting. While the first statement ends conclusively, the second ends inconclusively. Is the resolve of the executioners the same as that of Valerian, who oversees the execution? Are there traces of insecurity behind those stares? Perhaps, there is more to the story.
In the next section, descending scales begin one after another, with each descent beginning from a higher pitch. On the canvas, we see Lawrence reaching up to heaven and out to his fellow man, only to be consistently constrained. Then, rapidly rising scales begin, like the rising flames, which singe the Saint’s skin. We realize that Lawrence’s torment is not only coming from above, but from below as well. Rhythmically, the scales do not begin on the strong part of the beat, but the weaker part of the beat. This asymmetry in rhythm, known as syncopation, parallels the asymmetry in the composition of the painting. The radiant white body of the saint and the primary colors of red and yellow contrast with the ominous, swirling black background. Additionally, we notice how Lawrence’s body is wrought with pain, but his face appears relaxed. There is also imbalance between what is happening to the saint physically and what is happening to him spiritually. As his body roasts to its demise on the gridiron, his soul is rising to everlasting glory in Heaven. Such contrast between what the artist paints and what he implies is paralleled in the music. In the next section, the music rises harmonically, rather than melodically. While the prior rising and falling scales showed clear direction, the rising harmony lacks a perceptible line. The harmony, like the soul, rises from within, an effect that is much more transcendent and powerful.
As the piece enters the first solo violin passage, we hear a widely spanning, screaming passage, which involves the soloist violently crossing the strings. We can almost sense the screeching wail emitted by someone who is in such burning pain. While so much action is occurring in the solo voice, the other members of the orchestra play a repeated, stagnant pitch. Similarly, Stanzione depicts the executioners and Valerian as momentarily paused, looking at the saint. If the painting were a photograph, it is likely that only a few of the executioners would be looking at Lawrence, while others would be engrossed in their execution duties. The fact that nearly every visible face is directed at Lawrence, as if stopped in their actions, speaks volumes of the painter’s intentions. The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence is as much a struggle of man against society as it is of society against the morality of its actions.
This first solo statement presents the same idea twice, just like the beginning of the movement. This time, however, the second statement is lower in pitch than the first. Likewise, it seems as though the resolve of Lawrence is weakening in the painting, compared to his executioners. But then, a third statement from the soloist bursts forth, this time soaring higher. It seems as if Lawrence perceives something that allows him to overcome the strain of his excruciating pain. Perhaps, it is the arrival of the angel messenger from above, who rushes toward the perishing martyr with a blue cloth and a palm branch of victory. What could be the impact of this divine intervention on Lawrence’s struggle? The harmonic turn the piece takes next might hold a possible answer.
The piece now enters into the first hint of a major key, having been in a minor key since the opening. All of the violins now play a rising passage that repeats, creating an air of optimism, bravery, and triumph. In the same section, the orchestration also shows a turn of events. Previously, the solo violin has been in either musical competition or unity with the rest of the orchestra. For the first time, the orchestra chooses sides, with all violins of the orchestra joining the solo violin in playing this passage. The viola, cello, and continuo continue to play a descending answer to the passage in the violins. The orchestra is split, with half appearing to side with the soloist. Does this change of heart in the orchestra show the same transformation appearing to take place in the expressions of the executioners? Does their sense of humanity trump their duties to Valerian and their government?
The next solo section, with its repetitive simplicity and juvenile character, highlights another theme of the painting: youth. There are two children portrayed in the painting, just as this solo section is a duet between the soloist and the continuo. A child angel, rather than an adult angel, hurries from the heavens to aid Lawrence, while, in the shadows of the lower right corner of the canvas, a poor child kneels, stoking the flames and watching Lawrence burn. The theme of youth is striking, as the children are placed at direct opposite corners of the canvas. The child on the ground, as a member of society, seems to be stoking the fire as if playing an innocent, harmless game, an approach that differs greatly from the other executioners. It reminds us, and more importantly, Stanzione’s audience, that all of the society members involved in Lawrence’s execution were once children. As adults, the executioners’ acquiescence to the will of authority has caused them to act in ways that a child would never be able to rationalize. In the end, Lawrence is persecuted by men, but saved by a child.
From this point of optimism, the concerto continues by enveloping the soloist in downward doom. The next time the solo plays alone, the accompaniment is a simple held tone, and by the final solo passage, the accompaniment has vanished. The solo passages become shorter and are continuously interrupted by the orchestra, whose passages become longer and stronger. It is as if the concerto is reminding us of the gruesome outcome on earth of what we see in the painting.
While Vivaldi’s music is a commentary on Mother Nature, the painting is a commentary on human nature. Considering that the painting would have been hung with the bottom of the frame placed at the viewer’s eye level, the observer would have been looking in the same line that falls from the eyes of the executioners to Lawrence’s body. Much like being surrounded by mourning family members at a funeral, the expressions and reactions of the executioners reflect and heighten those of the viewers. At the same time, the insights discovered through comparing The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence and Vivaldi’s concerto movement unearth new meaning in this timeless visual masterpiece.
Thomas Willette, “The Muncie Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence in Historical Perspective,” Edmund F. Petty Memorial Lecture, Muncie, IN, April 23, 1994.