The book of Acts singles out Stephen as the first among Jesus’s disciples to be killed for his faith.
Images of martyrs posed one probing, personal question: would you be willing to die, rather than renounce your beliefs?
By contrast, the artworks in this exhibition focus on the communal rationale behind Stephen’s killing, which stoning represents with particular poignancy since, in a literal way, the group acts as executioner. Interestingly, by the time these images were created, the Church’s position of authority could in fact bear an uncanny resemblance to that of the Sanhedrin in the book of Acts. Thus, depictions of Stephen speaking to the authorities perhaps also imply an insidious question that concerns society as a whole: is it ever right to kill those who challenge or offend the religious establishment?
Such a question seems particularly apposite to Vittore Carpaccio’s Saint Stephen’s Disputation with the Elders. This depiction of the elders in Acts 6:12 as respectable contemporary citizens raises an interesting point in the context of Venice, a city that stood out as an example of relative political freedom as well as religious diversity and toleration at the time: a community like that which commissioned the painting could in fact kill the dissenters in their midst. Catholic Venice generally chose against this option, and harboured instead groups of foreigners as well as a physically separate, but nevertheless thriving, Jewish ghetto.
The boundaries between in- and out-groups are set out unambiguously in a panel from an early-fourteenth century altarpiece made in Catalonia—the place from which many of the Venetian Jews had fled. By depicting the elders as contemporary Jews, the artist focused (unlike Carpaccio) on religious identity rather than social equivalence; their cartoonish features convey the idea that they are completely different from Stephen, while their dress identifies them instead with the local Jewish community. Thus, the image seems to encourage both exclusion and the use of a particular reading of Scripture as the basis for anti-Semitic slurs.
Like the Venetian work, this image portrays the society in which it originated. But while Carpaccio’s painting hints at a healthy introspective concern with the treatment of dissenters, this one is steeped in the hateful rhetoric current at the time against a group of powerless outsiders.
Unlike the two other works in this exhibition, Juan de Juanes’s Saint Stephen Before the Sanhedrin was painted in a context in which religious minorities had been nominally either expelled or assimilated. The rounding up of dissenters, however, was far from over, as the Inquisition prosecuted individuals for their unorthodox beliefs or suspect backgrounds. One was at a greater risk for spreading dissenting opinions out in the community rather than for holding the same in private, just as Acts 6:10 informs us that Stephen’s public speaking and teaching turned the authorities on him. In the painting, Juanes focuses on the attitudes of the group of figures who react to Stephen’s arguments. In contrast with the accusatory fingers that indicate heated debate in the Catalan panel, here Stephen points calmly to a vision of Jesus with God in Heaven (7:55–56), which we—like him—can see, while the other figures cannot.
When English traveller Henry Ford saw the paintings by Juanes in the Prado in the mid-nineteenth century, he remarked that the faces are ‘somewhat too Jewish for fine art’ (Ford 1845: 2.754), responding with his own prejudice to the anti-Semitic qualities he perceived in the panels. A thing he failed to notice, however, is that the depictions of the figures in these panels undergo a progressive change as the story unfolds. Their features are naturalistic in Saint Stephen in the Synagogue, taking on a cartoonish quality in Saint Stephen Accused of Blasphemy, which increases to the verge of bestiality in Saint Stephen Taken Out to Be Stoned. This transition may well allude to the way the characters lose their humanity as the narrative progresses from tense disputation to brutal execution. Thus, the violence of Stephen’s death arises from the judges’ vehement rejection of the possibility that an outsider may be seeing something that they are not able to see.
The story of every martyr is the story of a religious establishment reacting against a perceived threat to its spiritual integrity. Stephen justified himself to the Sanhedrin by appeal to a long history which will remain that of Christians as well as of Jews; he takes his place in a line extending from Abraham through Joseph to Moses, and his ‘angelic face’ (6:15) seems almost to weave his and Moses’s identity together. So, we are left wondering whether a logic of religious exclusion can only ever do violence to itself.
Ford, Richard. 1845. A Handbook for Travellers in Spain, and Readers at Home, 2 vols (London: John Murray)
6Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. 2And the twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. 4But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5And what they said pleased the whole multitude, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochʹorus, and Nicaʹnor, and Timon, and Parʹmenas, and Nicolaʹus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands upon them.
7 And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.
8 And Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. 9Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyreʹnians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Ciliʹcia and Asia, arose and disputed with Stephen. 10But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. 11Then they secretly instigated men, who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, 13and set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law; 14for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place, and will change the customs which Moses delivered to us.” 15And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
7 And the high priest said, “Is this so?” 2And Stephen said:
and said to him, ‘Depart from your land and from your kindred and go into the land which I will show you.’ 4Then he departed from the land of the Chaldeʹans, and lived in Haran. And after his father died, God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living; 5yet he gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot’s length, but promised to give it to him in possession and to his posterity after him, though he had no child. 6And God spoke to this effect, that his posterity would be aliens in a land belonging to others, who would enslave them and ill-treat them four hundred years. 7‘But I will judge the nation which they serve,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.’ 8And he gave him the covenant of circumcision. And so Abraham became the father of Isaac, and circumcised him on the eighth day; and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs.
9 “And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him, 10and rescued him out of all his afflictions, and gave him favor and wisdom before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who made him governor over Egypt and over all his household. 11Now there came a famine throughout all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction, and our fathers could find no food. 12But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent forth our fathers the first time. 13And at the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to Pharaoh. 14And Joseph sent and called to him Jacob his father and all his kindred, seventy-five souls; 15and Jacob went down into Egypt. And he died, himself and our fathers, 16and they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem.
17 “But as the time of the promise drew near, which God had granted to Abraham, the people grew and multiplied in Egypt 18till there arose over Egypt another king who had not known Joseph. 19He dealt craftily with our race and forced our fathers to expose their infants, that they might not be kept alive. 20At this time Moses was born, and was beautiful before God. And he was brought up for three months in his father’s house; 21and when he was exposed, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son. 22And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds.
23 “When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brethren, the sons of Israel. 24And seeing one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking the Egyptian. 25He supposed that his brethren understood that God was giving them deliverance by his hand, but they did not understand. 26And on the following day he appeared to them as they were quarreling and would have reconciled them, saying, ‘Men, you are brethren, why do you wrong each other?’ 27But the man who was wronging his neighbor thrust him aside, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? 28Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ 29At this retort Moses fled, and became an exile in the land of Midʹian, where he became the father of two sons.
30 “Now when forty years had passed, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in a flame of fire in a bush. 31When Moses saw it he wondered at the sight; and as he drew near to look, the voice of the Lord came, 32‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob.’ And Moses trembled and did not dare to look. 33And the Lord said to him, ‘Take off the shoes from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. 34I have surely seen the ill-treatment of my people that are in Egypt and heard their groaning, and I have come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send you to Egypt.’
35 “This Moses whom they refused, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’ God sent as both ruler and deliverer by the hand of the angel that appeared to him in the bush. 36He led them out, having performed wonders and signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea, and in the wilderness for forty years. 37This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet from your brethren as he raised me up.’ 38This is he who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers; and he received living oracles to give to us. 39Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt, 40saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods to go before us; as for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 41And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and rejoiced in the works of their hands. 42But God turned and gave them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets:
‘Did you offer to me slain beasts and sacrifices,
forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel?
43And you took up the tent of Moloch,
and the star of the god Rephan,
the figures which you made to worship;
and I will remove you beyond Babylon.’
44 “Our fathers had the tent of witness in the wilderness, even as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen. 45Our fathers in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations which God thrust out before our fathers. So it was until the days of David, 46who found favor in the sight of God and asked leave to find a habitation for the God of Jacob. 47But it was Solomon who built a house for him. 48Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with hands; as the prophet says,
49‘Heaven is my throne,
and earth my footstool.
What house will you build for me, says the Lord,
or what is the place of my rest?
50Did not my hand make all these things?’