Saint Stephen’s Disputation with the Elders by Vittore Carpaccio

Vittore Carpaccio

Saint Stephen’s Disputation with the Elders, 1514, Oil on canvas, 147 x 172 cm, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, Inv. 241, Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

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Sanhedrin by the Lagoon

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St Stephen was the patron saint of Venice’s Scuola di Santo Stefano, a confraternity made up of members of the city’s wool guild. This work is part of a narrative cycle painted by Vittore Carpaccio between 1510 and 1520 to decorate the Scuola’s late-fifteenth century chapel—the other three paintings represent Stephen’s consecration (Berlin, Gemäldegalerie), preaching (Paris, Louvre), and martyrdom (Stuttgart, Staatsgalerie).

Stephen’s hand gestures, conventionally associated with rhetoric, indicate that he is making a number of points as part of a speech destined to win his listeners over. Despite the presence of exotic elements such as a fanciful pyramid in the imaginary Jerusalem in the background, the setting is essentially similar to contemporary European cities. The group of men who listen to the young deacon’s arguments occupy an open loggia that references the built environment of early-sixteenth century Venice, just as we find in a canvas painted a few years earlier by Carpaccio’s master Gentile Bellini, Saint Mark Preaching in Alexandria (1504–07; Milan, Pinacoteca Brera, inv. 160). In both paintings, the crowd consists of portraits of the painters’ contemporaries, and the seemingly collegiate robes and caps worn by some of the figures are reminiscent of those worn by members of Venice’s distinctive organs of government, the Great Council and the Council of Ten.

A busy trade port, Venice in the early modern period was also characterized by its remarkable ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity. It is not surprising that an artist working in such a context should encourage viewers not only to identify themselves with the martyr, but also, albeit for a moment, to approach the painting as a mirror in which they see a possible version of themselves as a group.

Carpaccio characterized the elders with styles of clothing similar to those worn by Venetian magistrates, in order to convey what he saw as an important point: that the Sanhedrin wielded both power and moral authority. Only here—as evident to early-sixteenth century Venetians as it is for us—the crowd of onlookers in the painting is the group that will soon pass and execute Stephen’s sentence, or approve of it through inaction. In Acts 7:1, the elders begin by asking, ‘Are these charges true?’, but viewers of this image are invited into an awareness that even scrupulous judges may become blinded by rage and condemn a saint.


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