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). 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.
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?’