Saint Stephen’s Disputation in the Synagogue by Master of Badalona

Master of Badalona

Saint Stephen’s Disputation in the Synagogue, 1400–20, Tempera on panel, 50 x 50 cm (approx.), Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Inv. 015824-CJT, Album / Alamy Stock Photo

Close Close
Zoom in Zoom in
Zoom out Zoom out
Reset image Reset image

Hanging by a Thread

Commentary by

This altarpiece was originally found in the church of Santa Maria in Badalona, a town near Barcelona, and was painted by an anonymous local master. It contains several scenes of the lives of John the Baptist and Stephen. 

The middle-right panel illustrates the delivery of Stephen’s lengthy speech to the authorities as narrated in Acts 7, but, perhaps more interestingly, it also provides a glimpse of the precarious situation of Jews living alongside the Christian majority in late medieval Spain (Mann 2010: 119–21).

From 1242 onwards, authorities decreed that every synagogue should host a yearly sermon, often delivered by a convert from Judaism, entreating the community to embrace the Christian faith. Stephen is depicted as a young, freshly-tonsured deacon in a rich golden dalmatic, preaching one such sermon from atop the teivah, the platform used for the public reading and exposition of the Torah. The elders of the Sanhedrin, with large hooked noses, wear the distinctive hooded caperó imposed on contemporary local Jews. Thus, through setting and fashion, the image effectively negates any geographical or historical distance between the Jewish authorities that condemned Stephen and the Jewish minority who lived in Badalona in the early fourteenth century.

Acts 8:1 informs us that the stoning of Saint Stephen was followed by a period of hardship for the early Christians, seemingly indicating that the growing strain between them and the Jewish authorities had reached its tipping point. A sadly similar outcome—though in reverse—often followed the tense atmosphere experienced by Spanish Jews in the late Middle Ages, to which the Badalona panel bears witness. Around the time the altarpiece was completed, the Iberian Christian realms were in the midst of a wave of persecutions against Jews and intermittent pogroms lasting from 1391 to around 1416.

In the panel, the antagonism of pointing fingers hints at the manner in which the yearly Christian sermons in synagogues were preached and received. Spanish Jews would be expelled from the newly unified kingdoms of Aragon and Castile in 1492, putting an end to any semblance of toleration.

Though he is described in Acts as having ‘the face of an angel’, Stephen is shown in Acts 7: 51, 53, as in this painting, as capable of excoriating attack: ‘You stiff-necked people […] As your fathers did, so do you’.

Such attacks have had a long and lacerating legacy.

Read comparative commentary