The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence and The “Summer” Concerto.


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.

Click here for a discussion of Stanzione’s painting and Vivaldi’s music.

For a complete performance of the third movement of Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in G Minor, RV 315 (“Summer” Concerto) click here.

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.

Works Cited
Thomas Willette, “The Muncie Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence in Historical Perspective,” Edmund F. Petty Memorial Lecture, Muncie, IN, April 23, 1994.


9 thoughts on “The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence and The “Summer” Concerto.

  1. Kiersten Cass says:

    For this art piece I don’t think Vivaldi’s “summer” is a good fit. I think that “summer” came off as a happy tone, and the painting itself is depressing and sad. A better piece for this painting would be something with a lower tone and softer melody.

  2. Claire Bauserman says:

    I believe that this piece is pretty fitting for the painting- the rapid movement of the violins remind me of suspense. The fact that the piece is called Summer could represent the heat of the flames. -Claire Bauserman

  3. Keyera Constable says:

    I agree with commentary for this painting because there is a sense of desperation from Saint Lawrence as he faces his execution. “Summer” from The Four Seasons by Vivaldi perfectly embodies this suffering. The constant shaking of the violin represents Saint Lawrence’s emotion as he is being tortured. Another peice of music that would go perfectly with this painting would be “Winter” from The Four Seasons by Vivaldi. This peice of music starts off very uneasy like “Summer” does. “Summer” also relates well to the colors used in the painting. There is a lot of dark colors used which makes the painting seem gloomy and a feeling of sorrow.

  4. Claire Bauserman says:

    I feel that Summer and the piece are related with their intensity- the subject of the persecuted martyr and the movement of the violins. I like how fitting the works are for each other. They both are sort of disturbing. Perhaps Didos Lament could be paired with this piece because of the similar, sorrowful focus.

  5. Jeremiah Corbin says:

    The pairing between Vivaldi’s “Summer” concerto and the piece of art were a great fit. The concerto added suspense and supported the underlying message of Massimo’s piece of art by keeping you on your toes during the mans suffering and questioning what would be the outcome of his situation. The colors used in the piece of art contrasted well in my opinion with Vivaldi’s concerto as well. Unfortunately I cannot think of another piece of music that would fit this work of art, simply because “Summer” fit it perfectly in my opinion.

  6. Julian Torres says:

    I think the pairing of Vivaldi’s “Summer” Concerto was a pretty good fit. I like how the music had a sharpness at the beginning that created a dramatic mood, which is perfect for this painting. The art work shows desperate times for one man as he looks to be on his death bed. The way the violins were played truly did give me chills while looking at this painting. Although I believe there are better pieces of music that would’ve fit this painting, I am unable to name any due to the fact that the art has an old classical feeling to it, and I do not listen to that type of music. All in all, I believe this art music pairing was would a nice selection.

  7. Shania Johnson says:

    This painting and Summer are related in a few ways. The painting reminds me of the Black Death, which took place in the 14th century. It is very dark, it has not life or happiness and it looks as if the man is being tortured.. The music adds intensity to the painting and even gives the painting a better visual of what could possibly be taking place in the art. In the music, the harmony is dark, the violins are shaking which adds pressure and intensifies your thoughts. The when the violins are really loud and high, it seems like the man in the painting is going to be free or healed, but then when the cello’s start playing very low, it seems like the man in the image is going to die. The music really add dimension to the painting and has your mind wondering about “what could have possibly been taking place in this painting”? What i really like about the art is that it drew my attention and stood out from the others. It is dark, and when I saw this artwork in the museum, I instantly knew how to describe what was going on in the painting. I can read the painting. I don’t dislike anything about it either. I like the music because it matched the painting, the instruments work very well together. Sometimes the music can have it’s downfall because its so long, and then there are breaks in the song which makes me think the song is over..,but no, its not. A dark song that would go great with this painting is Nocturnus by Adrian von Ziegler.

  8. Grant Canady says:

    I really like how this piece seems to have a dark feeling to it in the picture and it also seems to be a picture that has a lot going on in it, and i think this fast pace music really brings out all of the things going on it this picture and the fast music with screeching shows the darkness.

  9. Reagan Pender says:

    Although this pairing of the Summer Concerto and The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence are a good match, I do not think this was the best fit for the piece of art. When I look at this painting, I think that the piece of music accompanying it should have a slow tempo and dark tones. This way, it can better capture the true suffering Saint Lawrence is experiencing in the picture. The Summer Concerto was fast and intense, which fit the piece of art adequately. I just believe that something slower and darker would have worked better.

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