Saint Stephen Accused of Blasphemy by Juan de Juanes

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

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Righteous Indignation

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These seven panels by Juan de Juanes (Vicente Juan Macip), one of the chief masters of the Spanish Renaissance, were once part of an altarpiece in the church of St Stephen in Valencia, the painter’s hometown. Five of the panels depict the sequence of events in Acts 6–7: Stephen is first shown teaching in the synagogue, then speaking before the Sanhedrin, later being led out by a mob, stoned outside the city walls, and finally buried.

An imaginary classical interior sets the scene for the dramatic Saint Stephen Accused of Blasphemy. The elders seethe with rage (7:54), and shout and cover their ears to block out what they hear (7:57). Juanes indicates the part of Stephen’s speech that triggered their anger the most: directly beneath a carving of Moses with the tablets of the Law in the background, Stephen holds a book open at the passage describing his vision of Jesus with God in Heaven (7:55–56), and the saint’s extended hand connects this text to a depiction of the same passage. The painter chose not to define whether Stephen’s vision is seen through a window, or is an incongruous painting in the synagogue interior; this ambiguity helps to convey the supernatural character of the vision. The serpentine figure beneath the seat of the presiding figure suggests the evil character of the assembly.

False denunciations were common during Juanes’s lifetime; in fact, the artist worked on this commission during one of the most intolerant periods in Spanish history, as the Inquisition strived to eradicate any traces of Protestant doctrine from the Iberian Peninsula. In 1559, the country was shaken by news of the detention of Bartolomé de Carranza, the Archbishop of Toledo. His name had been mentioned by members of a purported Lutheran cell. Though a key contributor to the definition of Catholic dogma during the Council of Trent, Carranza spent most of the final seventeen years of his life in confinement, and was declared innocent only shortly before his death.

Stephen’s situation, as described in the book of Acts, would therefore have struck a powerful chord. His antagonists ‘set up false witnesses’ to fabricate an accusation of blasphemy against Moses, God, the Temple, and the Torah (6:11–14), and thus to have him killed.

In sixteenth-century Spain, this was not just a scene from a long-ago past.

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