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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

Juan de Juanes

Saint Stephen Accused of Blasphemy, 1560–62, Oil on panel, 160 x 123 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Inv. P00839, Museo Nacional del Prado / Art Resource, NY

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

A Matter of Life or Faith

Comparative Commentary by

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.

 

References

Ford, Richard. 1845. A Handbook for Travellers in Spain, and Readers at Home, 2 vols (London: John Murray)

 

Next exhibition: Acts of the Apostles 7:1–50 Next exhibition: Acts of the Apostles 7:51–8:1